OnStage Connecticut Critic
More than any other play I’ve seen, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is the theater equivalent of fast food. It’s unimaginably cobbled together from various popular parts, overly cheesy and not very nourishing. But, for many people, there’s an undeniable pleasure to its salty, plasticky goodness that scratches an itch like no fine steak dinner can. Perhaps it’s that sense of comfort, that it will always taste the same no matter your location or age.
Clearly, if we are judging by box office numbers, fast food does incredibly well in the theater. The recently closed “Jersey Boys” is the twelfth longest running Broadway show of all time, while “Mamma Mia” is the eighth. Even if the crowds are mainly soccer moms, tourists and retirees, one most bow down to the fact that, for a large population of theater-goers, this bouncy-squeaky clean formula works. It clearly did for the packed house at The Bushnell in Hartford, CT when the tour of “Beautiful” rolled through. As a season subscriber, this is my fourth show there since the fall and I’ve never seen a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd. For “The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night-time,” a stunning, imaginative work of theater that I reviewed for this site last month, the orchestra was peppered with empty seats. “Beautiful” played to a packed crowd of nearly 3,000 whose enjoyment was palpable.
That is expect for one audience member: me. You see, there is one secret ingredient to enjoying “Beautiful” and it’s one I lack: nostalgia. “Beautiful” runs almost completely on nostalgia. Nostalgia is its gasoline and its wheels. I grew up in the ‘90s, when Carole King was already pushing 50. My first introduction to Ms. King (and to the songwriting team of Mann/Weil who feature prominently in the story) were songs from children’s films like “Really Rosie,” “An American Tail” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” I like Carole King’s music and the Motown catalogue enough, but they don’t mean much to me other than something pleasant to put on in the background. The truth is, when you watch “Beautiful” without a pair of nostalgia glasses firmly planted on your nose, what is there?
A pretty flimsy plot, to begin with. Yes, the musical is based on the true story of singer-songwriter Carole King and how she got her start in show business. At 16, she sold her first song to producer Don Kirshner, landing her an office in the Brill Building, a factory of 1960s pop hits. We trace her turbulent romance with lyricist Gerry Goffin, her friendship with songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and the arc of popular music in the middle of the 20th century. Even though the story actually happened and all the characters are real, Douglas McGrath’s script is predictable, dull and superficial. There is an interesting story to tell here, but McGrath rarely fills the page with anything more than sitcom quips, fan-service, winking jokes about celebrities of yesteryear and trite, soapy dialogue (“The girls deserve better than this and, you know what, so do I!”). Perhaps if the dizzyingly long song-list was trimmed, more time could have been devoted to fleshing out characters and giving us a little more to sink our teeth into. I’d have gladly given up a few numbers sung by actors impersonating The Drifters or The Shirelles in favor of a stronger story.
But all is not lost. Even though the show features nearly 30 songs, most of them are winners. It’s almost impossible to listen to “One Fine Day” or “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” without subconsciously tapping your feet and King’s later work (minus the always-saccharine “You’ve Got A Friend”) is gorgeous, mature pop music at its best. Even though King struggled with writing words early in her career, it is her ability to pen deeply poetic but unfussy lyrics that stick with me the most. In the title song she sings, “I have often asked myself the reason for the sadness in a world where tears are just a lullaby/If there's any answer, maybe love can end the madness, maybe not, oh, but we can only try,” a piece of writing that does more in two lines than McGrath does in a full act. The numbers too are staged uniformly well by director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince (even if his moves lean too heavily on “Dreamgirls” posturing at times). There’s a lot going on in “Beautiful” between the large cast, the hit-parade of songs and a story that takes place over ten years, but Bruni keeps the show going at a buoyant clip that prevents us from ever feeling confused or bored.
Besides the tunes, the other thing the national tour of “Beautiful” has going for it is a stellar young cast. Our Carole, Julia Knitel, is incredibly likable as the vulnerable, slightly awkward Jewish girl from Brooklyn who starts the show and as the confident musician she grows into. That transformation is perhaps the most interesting part of “Beautiful” and Knitel plays it perfectly, never dipping too far into caricature or vocal mimicry, even though she sounded remarkably like the real King. Liam Tobin’s strong voice and compelling performance as Gerry Goffin was welcome too, even if he was often overshadowed by two comedic turns from Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser. As Cynthia Weil, Olson (whose spitfire energy brought to mind Kate McKinnon) felt right out of a black-and-white sitcom with her quick, dry remarks while Fankhauser, channeling Barry Mann by way of Woody Allen, took great pleasure in milking every laugh out of his nebbishy character. Also doing fine comedic work in a one-note part is Suzanne Grodner as King’s stereotypical Jewish mother.
In many ways, a show like “Beautiful” is critic proof. What does it really matter if one reviewer found it generic and coasting on nostalgia, like one of those PBS shows that cobbles together “Ed Sullivan” performances? During “Beautiful,” I was keenly aware of the audience around me, who all seemed to be having a blast. The friendly, middle-aged women next to me grinned and danced in her seat from the overture on, another behind me softly sang along during multiple numbers. The entire crowd would gasp in anticipation after the first chord of many songs and laughed heartily at references that flew over my head. I won’t even mention the post-curtain call sing-along.
It was close to intermission when I figured out what had been troubling me since I sat down: watching “Beautiful” felt like being at someone else’s high school reunion. When the reunion is yours, it’s fun to make superficial small-talk, tell old stories and reminisce. When you graduated forty years later, there’s just not much to talk about and the enjoyment quickly wears thin.