Review: Touring Carole King Bio-Musical "BEAUTIFUL" Lives Up to its Title
Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
- Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Los Angeles CA - Even without eye-popping special effects, a gimmicky storyline, or those oft-used literary or cinematic source materials, some stage shows just manage to entertain by sheer likability alone.
A big warm hug of a show that's brimming with lots of surprisingly snappy wit and, arguably, some of the previous century's most melodious music, 'BEAUTIFUL'—the Broadway stage musical based on the life of treasured Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Carole King—is a show that certainly lives up to its title. The charming, swiftly-paced bio-musical's first national tour continues its four-week engagement at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through July 17, 2016.
Directed by Marc Bruni and features an engaging book by Douglas McGrath, the show is nostalgia-baiting at its best. It's also quite a head-bobbing, toe-tapping reminder of just how much King and her co-writer husband Gerry Goffin have contributed to the world of early pop music.
And, yes, as far as jukebox musicals go, BEAUTIFUL is certainly one of the far superior ones. From start to finish, the musical keeps you intrigued, despite having very little high drama. But as you take in the genuinely heartwarming show—from its joyful, giddy highs to its melancholy (and, thankfully, not too tragic) lows—you'll very quickly feel glad (and, frankly, a little relieved) that it has been purposely fashioned that way. To that end, BEAUTIFUL is actually quite a wonderfully refreshing change-of-pace. It's centrist entertainment that satisfies and leaves you smiling and humming as you exit out to return to your own lives. Just as King describes herself, the show is pretty "square"... but you still can't help but like it.
What the pleasant but still fascinating, lull-free story lacks in any real conflict or danger, it makes up for it with extraordinary musical performances from not only its four incredible lead actors, but also its superb supporting cast, some of whom occasionally step out into the spotlight to personify the very artists that helped make many of these King-penned tunes infamous.
And in one of my favorite lead performances of the year thus far, the radiant Abby Mueller admirably takes on the role of living legend Carole King—yes, the very same role that won her sister Jessie Mueller the 2014 Tony Award—and she does so brilliantly for the tour. Though not a total impersonation, Mueller channels enough of the real King by way of speech and mannerism that both feel completely authentic yet still wholly unique. If the production's goal is to have the audience fall in love with her portrait of King, then this Mueller definitely accomplishes the task with graceful ease.
The musical is bookended with a beaming Mueller as curly-coiffed King making her Carnegie Hall solo debut in 1971.
"I never wanted to be a singer," she tells the audience while behind the piano singing "So Far Away," referencing her beginnings as a songwriter first for other, more "radio-friendly" artists.
The story then flashes back not so quite far away to King as 16-year-old Carol Joan Klein, a budding composer living in 1958 Brooklyn with her hilariously stage-mothery mom Genie (scene stealer Suzanne Grodner), who, while keenly aware that she has a talented daughter, isn't too happy with her traipsing off to Manhattan alone to meet with a music mogul. But as most rebellious teens tend to do, Carole whisks off to meet with music publisher Donnie Kirshner (Curt Bouril) anyway at his infamous music "factory" at 1650 Broadway, where a stable of composers, writers, musicians, and singers are on hand to find the next big hit record.
Despite the dizzying hubbub of activity, tenacious Carole manages to get herself seen (well, heard) and, as expected, Kirshner is thoroughly impressed and buys her song "It Might As Well Rain in September" right on the spot—and asks if she has any more. This is, of course, the moment when you witness someone's dreams coming true right before your eyes.
Later at Queens College, Carole meets campus hottie Gerry Goffin (the charismatic Liam Tobin), who also happens to be a very talented lyricist. The two hit it off instantly, deciding to collaborate creatively on songs to be churned over for Don's factory. After The Shirelles hit No. 1 with the pair's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," Don gives the pair an office, a salary, and a mandate to create chart-toppers full-time. Soon their fruitful musical partnership morphs into a romantic one—which later finds Carole pregnant. She and Gerry rush to get married just as their song "Some Kind of Wonderful" becomes a big hit for The Drifters.
More hits followed including "Up On The Roof" for (again) The Drifters, "One Fine Day" for The Chiffons, and even "The Loco-Motion" which became a hit for their very own babysitter Little Eva.
Perhaps as a way to pad the narrative (and songbook) to fill a two-act musical, the show also smartly gives ample stage time to another songwriting power-couple that forms on the other side of the wall from Carole and Gerry's office. Not only does their presence show the genesis of a friendly musical rivalry that results in some incredible songs from both sides of the wall, but this other pair is also presented as a notable contrast to the increasingly rocky coupling of Carole and Gerry.
The couple in question involves whip-smart, self-assured lyricist Cynthia Weil (the beguiling Becky Gulsvig) and her anxiously neurotic composer partner Barry Mann (a winning Ben Fankhauser, the show's go-to comic genius). The two have an inter-office meet-cute that starts off as a successful musical collaboration in their own right ("On Broadway," "You've Lost That Loving Feeling") that also quickly moves into the realm of love.
But unlike their friends in the office next door, though, Cynthia and Barry don't rush into marriage—well, at least on Cynthia's part—even though they already act like an old, adorable married couple. Barry is gaga over his lady and has been wanting to get married, but independent and empowered Cynthia is a bit more cautious about taking the step. She hesitates fully committing to Barry not because she's not in love with him, but mostly because she feels she may lose her equal stance in their professional partnership if she does.
Reading deeper between the lines, Cynthia perhaps also doesn't like what she's seeing with Carole and Gerry—where Carole is slowly stifling her sense of self in order to continually appease her increasingly erratic, bad-behaving husband.
And if one thinks about it, both Weil and King are pioneering trailblazers for their lauded work in a very male-run industry during a much earlier time in the history of the music business. Cynthia isn't willing to sacrifice her hard-earned position, while Carole seems to display an (incorrect) ideology that her work is only good when Gerry is involved—which explains why Carole is willing to do whatever it takes to make Gerry happy and still present in her and her daughter's lives, even if it means sacrificing her own real happiness.
Thus, most of the first act, then, is spent showing the difference between the Carole/Gerry dynamic with the Cynthia/Barry partnership. While Carole and Gerry somehow manage to always one-up their best friends when it comes to securing hit songs, at the end of the day, Cynthia and Barry seem far more content with their lives than their Carole and Gerry... who seem to be growing more apart.
The second act presents Carole's continued attempts to save her marriage—including a move to the calm of the suburbs to escape the hustle and bustle of city life after Gerry suffers a mental breakdown. She's motivated to keep her unit whole, primarily for her daughter and so that she doesn't end up like her mom, whom she feels "is always in a rage" because her dad left her mom.
Unfortunately, it's all too late (hence Carole's new song "It's Too Late.") The marriage predictably implodes after Carole discovers Gerry had been cheating on her with another singer.
Once the dust settles, Carole eventually gains some much-needed confidence, ditching her long-held belief that the public won't accept her as anything else but a songwriter.
"Who wants to hear a normal person?!" she yells in protest.
Bravely, she moves west to Los Angeles where she begins work on her very own solo album with producer Lou Adler, which will eventually become her "normal person" masterpiece, Tapestry. Part of me wishes that we get to see more of the making of this monumental album, which it rushes through in the second half...
Meanwhile, as this whole narrative unfolds on stage, the audience is treated to a bevy of familiar, old school pop gems that are wonderfully performed in front of Derek McLane's gorgeously textured set designs that all resemble—surprise!—woven quilts and tapestries (just a coincidental nod to Carole's groundbreaking album Tapestry perhaps?). They are complemented exquisitely by Peter Kaczorowski's effective lighting schemes, Brian Ronan's soundscapes, and the rousing orchestral sounds supervised by musical director Susan Draus. Alejo Vietti's era-perfect costumes paired with Charles G. LaPointe's Wig and Hair Designs and Joe Dulude II's Make Up work all punctuate the show's pleasing visuals. Josh Prince's choreography—particularly during the song showcases for each musical "act" performing a songwriting team's song are peppy and feel reverent to their respective eras.
A relatively pleasant musical theater experience throughout, BEAUTIFUL is quite an admirable, satisfying tribute to one of the music world's "natural" talents. Whether you're a Carole King super fan or a casual admirer of her staggeringly good body of work, this is a stage show worth taking in while it's in your town.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos from the current National Tour Company of BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Hollywood Pantages Theatre.
Performances of BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre continue through July 17, 2016 and are scheduled Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1pm and 6:30pm. Tickets can be purchased online at HollywoodPantages.com, by phone at 1-800-982-ARTS(2787) or in person at the Pantages box office (opens daily at 10am) and all Ticketmaster outlets. The Pantages Theatre is located at 6233 Hollywood Boulevard, just east of Vine Street. For more information, please visit HollywoodPantages.com.