Thursday, February 25, 2016

Theatre Review: "Beautiful—The Carole King Musical" lights up the stage with 1960s nostalgia

Aldon Music
Photo: Joan Marcus
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"Beautiful—The Carole King Musical" is a bright, fast-paced jukebox of a show loosely based on the early years of Carole King's songwriting career, culminating with her emergence as a singer in her own right with her best selling Tapestry LP and subsequent Carnegie Hall concert in 1971. You won't get much in the way of insight into King's life or her songwriting process here, but with so many polished production numbers and a nostalgic score of '50s and '60s hits, that hardly matters. The show is pure fun, and the bits of pop music trivia in Douglas McGrath's book only add to the appeal.

"Beautiful" opens with teenaged Carol Klein anxious to get out of Brooklyn and into the music business. She changes her name to Carole King and takes her skill as a pianist, along with will would be her first big hit "It Might as Well Rain Until September," to rock entrepreneur Don Kirshner's Aldon Music at the fabled Brill Building in Manhattan. There she's hired on the spot and meets her first songwriting partner (and first husband) Gerry Goffin. Before long, they're cranking out hits and entering into friendly competition with fellow Aldon employees Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

The Drifters
Photo: Joan Marcus
For reasons that the slender plot never makes entirely clear, Goffin goes off on a self-loathing plunge into extramarital affairs and drugs that leads to divorce, although he and King somewhat implausibly reconcile as friends just before her big 1971 Carnegie Hall concert at the end of the show. But never mind; you don't go to a show like this for the story. You go for the music. And, with over two dozen nostalgic hits, "Beautiful" has plenty of those to offer.

It also has plenty of standout performances, beginning with Abby Mueller in the title role. She really nails King's somewhat shy and self-effacing persona while still letting us see the resilient core that allowed King to persevere despite romantic and personal setbacks. And she has King's vocal style down pat. Her performances of "Beautiful" or "It's Too Late" could pass for the originals. Yes, it's part celebrity impersonation, but it's also solid acting.

The Shirelles
Photo: Joan Marcus
There's a lot of virtuoso celebrity impersonation in this show, in fact, and it's done so well that it was clearly easy for the opening night audience to suspend disbelief and respond to the actors playing the various pop icons as though they were the real things. Leading the pack are Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Noah J. Ricketts, and Dashaun Young as The Drifters with their intricate and fluid choreography in hits like "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof," and a flashy "On Broadway." The quartet of Ashley Blanchet, Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, and Salisha Thomas also shine as the elegant and sexy Shirelles in "Will You Love Me Tomorrow."

Ms. Convington also plays the fictional singer Janelle Woods, who is apparently a stand-in for Goffin's real-life lover Jeanie Reavis, and Ms. Blanchet has an appealing high energy solo as Little Eva in "The Loco-Motion." Little Eva, as it turns out, was King and Goffin's baby sitter before the song made her a star. That's one of those "I never knew that" bits of music trivia that pop up throughout the evening.

L-R: Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller,
Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig
Photo: Joan Marcus
As The Righteous Brothers, Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias (who also has a funny recurring cameo as Neil Sedaka) had a powerful number on opening night with "You've Lost The Lovin' Feeling" (Mark Banik and Ryan Farnsworth take over those roles later in the run) and Liam Tobin made an equally powerful impression as well as the self-destructive Goffin. He'll play that role through the end of February, after which he will be replaced by Andrew Brewer.

Ben Fankhauser radiates nerdy charm as the hypochondriac Barry Mann and gets to rock out impressively with "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Becky Gulsvig gives Cynthia Weil lots of happy, brassy energy and joins voices beautifully with Mr. Fankhauser in "He's Sure the Boy I Love" and "Walking in the Rain." Curt Bouril and Suzanne Grodner round out the strong principal cast as the fast-talking Don Kirshner and King's acerbic mother Genie.

Director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince keep the action moving at a brisk pace, shifting easily between colorful production numbers and intimate dramatic moments. Derek McLane's scenic design and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting help accomplish that with multiple levels of brightly illuminated panels that that slide back and forth to quickly shift scenes. The orchestrations and arrangements by Steve Sidwell and Jason Howland serve the original hits well while still sounding very contemporary.

"Beautiful—The Carole King Musical" will be lighting up the stage at The Fabulous Fox in Grand Center through March 6. If you're old enough to remember these classic songs, the show is not to be missed. But even if you just discovered them on iTunes after hearing your grandparents gas on about them, I think you'll find this lively and loving tribute to one of the 20th century's great singer/songwriters pretty irresistible—and maybe even beautiful.

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