Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
The producers knew what audiences would and should be looking for in a Carole King musicalthe songs. Sixteen of her greatest hits are performed in the show, and as they are sung by the cast of this first national touring company, Beautiful delivers the goods beautifully. Abby Mueller (sister of Jessie, who won the Tony for the same role) doesn't get to do a whole lot of singing until the show's last 20 minutes, but then she raises the roof with "Natural Woman," "Beautiful" and an encore"I Feel the Earth Move." No less impressive is the handsome Liam Tobin as King's first husband and co-writer of their 1960s hits, Gerry Goffin. Also top-notch is the ensemble whose members take roles as The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva, Neil Sedaka, and the Righteous Brothers.
Book-writer Douglas McGrath also adds in the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil as the sort of secondary comic/romantic couple found frequently in Golden Age musicals. Ben Fankhauser and Becky Gulsvig handle the comic responsibilities nicely given the stock personas McGrath has created for the charactersMann is anxious and hypochondriacal while Weil is the smart-talking tough girl. Mann and Weil's songs, though equal in popularity to King and Goffin's in the day, have mostly not become standards of the same magnitude. Even so, it's fun to hear "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "On Broadway" and "Walking in the Rain."
Anyone looking for a great story or fascinating characters along with these songs may be disappointed, though. McGrath's book is at best workmanlike and at worst irritating. Ms. King has always seemedthrough her onstage persona and her charitable workto be an exceptionally kind and nice person. That's how McGrath shows her here, along with portraying her as very devoted to her music and more interested in creating art than achieving fame. I don't doubt any of that about her, but at least in this script, it doesn't make for a very interesting character. Far more fascinating and nuanced is McGrath's treatment of Gerry Goffin, who's maybe of even more interest because we knew so little about him.. Here he's a kid who was a bit of a player before marrying King when he was age 20. The script suggests he regretted the lost opportunity to play around or at least enjoy some night clubbing and chafed at the responsibilities and required commitments of parenthood when the couple married after their first child was conceived outside of wedlock. With Carole devoted to music and motherhood, Goffin sought his pleasures outside the marriage, leading to its eventual breakup. Tobin does well with this complex, flashy charactershowing his dark side as well as the sex appeal and charisma that attracted King and others to him.
Most of McGrath's book, though, is involved with tying together the show's 28 songs. Much of the time he does so in a repetitive way, anecdotally showing the circumstances that led to the writing of each song. Sometimes he sets up a token amount of tension ("Don Kirshner needs this by tomorrow! How will we ever get it done?") leading up to the predictable outcome that they do indeed deliver the song and it becomes a big hit. Time after time we see Carole and Gerry demo a song for music publisher/producer Kirshner, anxiously look for his approval and then after a tease, find that he loves it and will assign it to a performer. Also included are the kind of tidbits that look funny in retrospect knowing what we know today. Mann says he has a great song he wants to call "One Thin Dime" before Weil suggests they title it "On Broadway." Carole and Gerry ask their babysitter who should sing their new song "The Locomotion," and when the sitter has no suggestions, they say "thanks anyway, Little Eva."
Other than the strains on the Goffin-King marriage and the Weil-Mann relationship, there's not much tension in the script. Kirshner (Curt Bouril) is shown as an amiable, charmingly duplicitous boss. Surely he must have been more complex than that. The songs we see pitched and then recorded always become hitsthere seem to be no failures or disappointments in the careers of these two songwriting couples. Did they not have any trunk songs or B-sides that they wanted heard but were never released or promoted? Probably, but maybe the Beautiful producers feared if they were included in the show audiences would get impatient to get to the next standard.
The first act is mostly a "your hit parade" of the songs created by Goffin-King, Mann-Weil, and a few others at the "music factory" located at 1650 Broadway in Manhattan (not the famous Brill Building, but a similar, equally productive home of publishers, writers, recording artists and studios). The set by Derek McLanea grid of platforms with multiple cubes representing the cubicles in which the writers workedeffectively evokes the environment, while Alejo Vietti's costumes mix '60s casual with glamorous gowns and tuxes for the recording artists to give a feel of the period.
Act two mostly follows the breakup of the King-Goffin marriage and the beginnings of Carole's career as a solo artist, which McGrath details in the same simplistic and perfunctory manner he employs to tell of the duo's earlier songwriting successes. Carole tells Kirshner she wants to record a solo album, he sets her up with "the best producer in the business" (Lou Adler), and she goes on to record and release the monumentally successful Tapestry. In reality, she didn't really hit a home run on her first act batthe commercially unsuccessful Writer preceded Tapestry. The musical concludes with her first concert performanceat Carnegie Hall in June 1971right in the midst of Tapestry's monumental success. Ripping a page out of Funny Girl's script, McGrath has Gerry (whom she divorced two years earlier) arrive at her dressing room door to wish her well just before she takes the stage and sing the musical's title song. At this point, it was all I could do not to sing "Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein."
Carole King's rise from ambitious but inexperienced teenage writer to famous singer-songwriter is an impressive journey, to be sure, as is her personal growth from relying on a husband/writing partner to developing the confidence to write, perform, and even live on her own. There's a story of empowerment that might be more powerful if it weren't bogged down by the "and then we wrote____" anecdotes. The bet here is that people will come for the songs, and judging from the women behind me in the audience chattering during the dialogue and singing along with the songs, as well as the sellout houses on Broadway this show is still enjoying, that assumption has been proven many times over.
Beautiful is playing the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through February 21, 2016. For tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call 800-775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit beautifulonbroadway.com/tour.