Broadway has it tough these days.
It is so hideously expensive to mount a show- especially a musical- that to write an original show with all-original musical and lyrics, spend the years it takes to get it produced, and then finally risk it all on ticket sales and reviews, Broadway producers these days can be forgiven for taking proven stories and revamping them. Shows like The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Jersey Boys and more are good examples of this: even if the reviews are mixed, the shows sell- who doesn’t want to see Shrek singing in his swamp?
Beautiful -the Carole King Musical, is one of those. Loosely based on Carole King’s autobiography, it follows the singer’s early years, from teenaged songwriter through her early and tumultuous marriage to her lyricist partner, Gerry Goffin. It ends, of course, with her groundbreaking album Tapestry, and it’s giving nothing away by telling you that the final scene is of her at the piano at Carnegie Hall.
So it’s… expected. Meteoric rise to fame, cheating husband, finding her own inner voice alone, fame, glory, etc etc. But if you’re okay with the basic structure of I Know What Comes Next, you’ll have an unexpectedly good time with this show.
For one thing, it is beautifully designed; I constantly found myself visually entranced throughout the night. The set by Derek McLane is a luminescent jewel box, turning the large Opera House stage (and the even larger Broadway stage, in its original incarnation) into a framed, intimate setting of shifting colors. Given that the cast isn’t large- four principals and twenty in the ensemble- it brings the scale down nicely to a more human level.
The show covers twenty-five years of King’s career, and the fine costumes by Alejo Vietti are vibrant updates; in the case of the 50s boy and girl singing groups, Vietti rivals the jewel tones of the sets to both celebrate and lightly spoof the overdone costumes of the period.
The choreography, by Josh Prince, also merits special attention, particularly since the whole thing rests on making each song stand on its own. Again, humor comes into play throughout, and keep a sharp lookout for Neil Sedaka’s tip ‘o the hat flourish at the edge of the curtain.
There’s just a nice- and unexpected- sense of humor throughout the whole production. Sometimes these bio/music shows can become just a songlist punctuated by the briefest of segues, but for the most part, Beautiful has smooth transitions with the admittedly thin storyline leading the way. The book by Douglas McGrath is fairly witty, though it can at times veer into sitcom territory; you can almost hear ‘we need a laugh here’ going through the writer’s- or director’s- mind.
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
Tickets: $39 – $185
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
Abby Mueller as Carole King has an A-list voice and fully inhabits her role; it’s not so much an imitation as a well tuned reference. As Cynthia Weil, Becky Gulsvig threatens to walk away with the show- but to be honest, it’s by far the showier role than the workaday King. Both Liam Tobin and Ben Fankauser, as Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann respectively, turn in solid performances, though their characters are less fleshed out on paper.
I’ve saved the best for last: the music. For even if the book had been terrible or the show a dud, the music soars. We know so much of it- ‘So Far Away’, ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, ‘It’s Too Late’, ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’. It’s like visiting a friend you haven’t seen for awhile, and looking through photo albums of old times. And if a photo album seems a faded reference for these cellphone-riddled days, I was heartened to see that the full house I attended didn’t just have old fuddyduddies like me- lots and lots of teenagers and twentysomethings came that night, thank you very much.
And that’s the sell right there: come for the music of Carole King. Everything else, fine as it is, is just window dressing.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical . Book by Douglas McGrath . Words and Music by Gerry Goffin, Carol King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil . Director: Marc Bruni . Cast Principals: Abby Mueller as Carole, Liam Tobin as Gerry, Becky Gulsvig as Cynthia, and Ben Fankhauser as Barry. Ensemble: Curt Bouril, Suzanne Grodner, Mark Banik, Ashley Blanchet, Sarah Bockel, Andrew Brewer, Britney Coleman, Rebecca E Covington, Josh A Dawson, John Michael Dias, Ryan Farnsworth, Rosharra Francis, Jay McKenzie, Alaina Mills, Paris Nix, Noah J Ricketts, Naisa Thomas, Salisha Thomas, Delaney Westfall, Dashaun King.
Choreography: Josh Prince . Costumes: Alejo Vietti . Scenic Design: Derek McLane . Lighting Design; Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design, Brian Ronan, Stage Manager Eric Sprosty. The national touring company of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical was presented at The Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.