The jukebox musical is the red-headed step-child of contemporary theatre. The worst reviews you could ever read in, say, The New York Times will be of jukebox musicals. (Okay; maybe King Kong is the exception to that rule.)
I have had mixed reactions to the genre. Mama Mia! worked for me (and it’s stock has appreciated since it has been embraced by my children). I couldn’t stand Jersey Boys; the biographical aspect seemed self-serving and bogus, and the cheap humor at the expense of minor characters was repellent. I didn’t even return for Act Two of We Will Rock You (and I’d prefer to hear the Queen catalog more than that of the Four Seasons any day of the week and twice on Sundays, so that tells you how lousy that show is).
So, how would I rate Beautiful: The Carole King Musical? If you enjoy the jukebox musical as a form, I’d say it’s above the median mark. If you are into Carole King’s work in particular, you will probably enjoy it immensely.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is now in its sixth year on Broadway. By my count, if follows only Mama Mia! and Jersey Boys in the subcategory of long-running jukebox musicals, or will have when it surpasses the Broadway run of Smokey Joe’s Cafe, which it may have done by the time you read this.
That success is certainly impressive, even if it doesn’t equal the success of its subject. The songwriter behind a succession of hits by others, King eventually began to perform her own material. Her album Tapestry was wildly successful; swept the Grammy Awards the year it came out (1971); and would be on most, if not all, lists of greatest albums of its era.
What’s most impressive about this tour, here through the end of the year, is how well it does what it sets out to do. The cast imbues this material (a few cheesy moments notwithstanding) with impressive skill. From the opening moment, when Sarah Bockel as King addresses us as if we are the audience at Carnegie Hall (which is where the piece both begins and ends), she does so with a spontaneity that could convince you that the title of the play printed on your program was being discovered by her in the moment.
That sort of authenticity runs throughout the evening and up and down the cast (although, as I said, a few cheesy moments do occur).
What’s unsatisfying about the evening is not at all due to the cast, or to Marc Bruni, the director, who has obviously worked hard to make the material feel as genuine as possible.
What is satisfying is the story of a seemingly ordinary person who is talented as a writer and who finds, to her surprise, that her’s is also the appropriate, and actually the best, voice to deliver her own compositions.
What is least satisfying is the arc of King’s romantic travails: her relationship with collaborator, lover, and eventual husband Gerry Goffin.
Firstly, as related here, it follows a very predictable course. There’s nothing specific about the presentation of the deteriorating marriage that adds anything to the well-trodden path we follow.
Secondly, it’s reductive: the play deals with only one of her four marriages, and it feels as if we aren’t getting so much a full picture of the artist’s life as we are getting a routine draw-by-the-numbers portrait of an unfortunate coupling.
Act One also splits the focus between the King/Goffin relationship and that of fellow songwriters and best friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. This allows for a broader range of songs to be included (Weil and Mann wrote “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” and “On Broadway,” among many other chart-toppers) but it also makes it feel, strangely, as if we’re hearing as many or more Weil/Mann numbers as we are King numbers, and as if King isn’t always the clear focus of The Carole King Musical.
Act One also becomes a bit tedious as, one by one, various songs are written, tweaked, or doubted, while the audience waits for the diminishing surprise that, “Wow! It became an unexpected smash hit!”
There’s some interesting historical nuggets regarding music of the era. (I didn’t realize that The Animals’ hit “We Gotta Get out of This Place” wasn’t their own song.)
There’s also a problem inherent to the jukebox musical: recreating a familiar performer or a performance in a manner that isn’t either a slavish copy on the one hand, or on the other hand so distinct that one feels as if one is at a Karaoke bar, albeit one with exceptionally strong voices.
Several of the R&B numbers are really fun. (The guy playing the lead singer of The Drifters — it’s not specified which actor he is, and the cast pictures are really small, but I think it’s Deon Releford-Lee — is a standout among several wonderful performers.) But those numbers also have an ersatz quality to them, as if the style of the performances is not only being recreated, but also being lampooned in order to make fun of the period excess. The Righteous Brothers number is the one that best strikes a good balance: the amusement at the expense of the act’s style is there, but is gentle and not intrusive.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
closes December 30, 2018
Details and tickets
The karaoke feel here is most pronounced when those playing the songwriters are singing, which is a shame, because they are all such good actors and good singers. I wished I was seeing them in a proper musical, with songs coming out of character and situation.
Though I wished Douglas McGrath’s script was more substantial, I admire aspects of it. Some of the humor it mines is cheesy, but some of the lines are pretty witty. And the central four characters, if drawn in somewhat broad outlines (particularly as regards the running joke of Mann’s hypochondria), are presented respectfully.
I particularly admire how Weil is portrayed as a smart, talented, capable professional woman whose ambition isn’t mocked. Alison Whitehurst nails the role.
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Dylan S. Wallach as Gorrin is attractive, charismatic, and a terrific singer, and the way he and the creative team delineate his sense of feeling smothered in his situation is the most interesting aspect to the marriage plot.
Jacob Heimer as Mann and James Clow as Don Kirshner (a name that may not mean anything to millennials but will to those of my generation and its successor) are playing the parts that are the most broadly drawn, but each earns and lands his laughs while giving dimension to roles that could feel flat in lesser hands.
A special treat for local audiences will be enjoying Paul Scanlan (I saw him play Claude in Hair at Keegan Theatre) who is kind of the leading player among those in the ensemble that cover multiple roles. During the first number, I made a note: “Am I watching him more than the others because he’s from DC, or am I watching him more than the others because he’s so good?”
Joining Scanlan in the wonderful Righteous Brothers number is John Michael Dias, who had previously been delightful as a somewhat cheeky version of Neil Sedaka.
The set (by Derek McLane) has an ugly back wall that Peter Kaczorowski lights in various colors, but the sliding panels that move downstage of it nicely delineate locales as various as a Brooklyn apartment, a New Jersey house, and a Vermont ski lodge.
Sarah Bockel as King is good throughout, but, funnily enough, it’s when she’s behind the piano as the mature King playing Carnegie Hall after her solo success that she really takes your breath away.
Let it be said that the audience gave all of the big numbers a rapturous reception and rose to its feet on opening night for the curtain call.
But, boy, it’s so weird, this form we call the jukebox musical. King is introduced at Carnegie Hall, Bockel comes out, and the audience applauds almost as if it really was Carole King arriving on-stage.
I’m thinking, “This is weird. It’s not her!”
But maybe some kind of strange alchemy has occurred that makes us, or some of us, react as if it is her.
Kudos, Beautiful — you’ve achieved that for a critical mass of your audience…and maybe that’s as important as the critical blast of my caveats.
I’d give it three stars for how good a time I had; four stars for avoiding many of the pitfalls of the form; and five stars for all of you who were loving it.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Book by Douglas McGrath. Words and Music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King; Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Directed by Marc Bruni. Featuring Sarah Bockel, Dylan S. Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer, James Clow, Suzanne Grodner, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Ben Biggers, Darius Delk, John Michael Dias, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Kaylee Harwood, Willie Hill, Alia Hodge, James Michael Lambert, Marla Louissaint, Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Aashley Morgan, Deon Releford-Lee, Nathan Andrew Riley, Paul Scanlan, DeAnne Stewart, Alexis Tidwell, Elise Vannerson, Josh A. Dawson. Choreographed by Josh Prince. Scenic Design: Derek McLane. Costume Design: Alejo Vietti, Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski. Sound Design: Brian Ronan. Production Stage Manager: Joel Rosen. Music Director: Susan Draus. Presented by National Theatre. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.