Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
National Tour
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Abby Mueller
Photo by Joan Marcus
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is proof that, done right, jukebox musicals can be both entertaining and emotionally rewarding. While a notch below the high bar set by the king of the jukebox shows, Jersey Boys, for pure entertainment, Beautiful exceeds that show in mining the emotions of its characters.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical uses the musical output of the beloved singer-songwriter to tell a portion of her life story. It shows her transformation from an ambitious but awkward Brooklyn teenager to Grammy Award winning performer, by way of personal and professional upheavals. Because everyone in the audience knows how Carole King will turn out at show's end, there is no suspense or surprise to be had. Instead, Beautiful wins us over with its vulnerable, sympathetic, and likable central character, and we become invested in rooting for her. The show also makes great use of her many hit songs—principally her 1960s songbook co-written with Gerry Goffin (both lyricist and first husband to King) and eventually her very successful solo album Tapestry.

Book writer Douglas McGrath has done a skilled job of mapping the convergence of King's fledgling career, as she first sells a song to recording czar Don Kirshner at 1650 Broadway in Manhattan (not actually the legendary Brill Building, but part of the "music factory") with the love-at-first-sight (at least in this stage version) relationship between King and Goffin. Married when she was just 17 (and pregnant), Beautiful presents both the glory of their young love and the painful fractures as they learn that they are unable to make one another happy.

Well-written book scenes dramatize their relationship and their rising careers, and well-chosen songs from their extensive catalog are used effectively to underline these passages. "Some Kind of Wonderful" accompanies the blossoming of their love, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" foreshadows heartache ahead, "One Fine Day" acts as a mirror in which King grapples with the schism coming between her and Goffin, "Pleasant Valley Sunday" offers a parody of their attempt to find happiness in suburban New Jersey, "It's Too Late" empowers King, now without Goffin, to tell the truth about the end of love, "You've Got a Friend" offers assurance of the support King receives as she moves on, and the closing title song, "Beautiful", is one of the most affirmative pop songs ever written, launching King into a new phase of life: powerful, independent, and happy.

Of course many other wonderful King and Goffin songs find their places in the show: "The Locomotion," "Up on the Roof," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "You've Got a Friend" and the amazing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," which is placed in the show to make the most of its scorching impact. Many of the songs are also pumped up into slick choreographed performances by the singers who recorded them, so we have the Drifters moving in on "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up on the Roof," the Shirelles having their cross-over hit "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", and Little Eva and company raising the heat on "The Locomotion."

In addition to King and Goffin, another song writing team is featured in the show, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The two couples are depicted as both fierce competitors and best of friends, and the Weil-Mann relationship draws contrast to the King-Goffin marriage. The impression is made that every great 1960s pop song not written by King and Goffin came from Weil and Mann, with such standards as "He's Sure the Boy I Love," "On Broadway" (a production number for The Drifters), "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" (given a stirring performance by the Righteous Brothers) and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" pumping up the musical quotient.

So, the story works, the songs work—in spades—and, bringing it all together, this national tour has a first rate cast. Most essential is a Carole King who comes across with grit and determination, sharp wit, but vulnerable and unsure of herself in matters of love. Abby Mueller projects all of these qualities, and persuasively shows the growth in confidence King needed to go it alone after her split with Goffin. On top of that, she has a terrific voice, tuned to strongly resemble King's sound and style. The fact that Abby Mueller is sister to Jessie Mueller, who one the Best Actress Tony Award for originating the part on Broadway two seasons back, makes her performance all the more impressive. No nepotism here, Abby Mueller's performance is terrific.

Liam Tobin gives a winning performance as Gerry Goffin, handsome and charming enough to believe that King would easily fall into his sway, and convincing when his emotions are wrenched by conflicting desires and unfulfilled ambitions. Becky Gulsvig is self-assured and focused as Cynthia Weil, while Ben Fankahuser's performance as Barry Mann brings an element of comic relief to the show, highlighting Mann's droll, self-deprecating persona. Suzanne Grodner makes a strong impression as Carole's mother Genie Klein, with the spine to have survived the demise of her own marriage, and always willing to give unsolicited advice to her daughter. Finally, Curt Bouril is effective as the music mogul Don Kirshner, who was able to make or break song-writers.

The ensemble does a terrific job of switching off portraying the various recording artists and their back-up singers, as well as numerous other small roles. They possess strong voices, and their dance moves all fit their numbers to a T. Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias especially earn high marks in their turn as the Righteous Brothers.

Josh Prince's choreography brings the music to life, and places the numbers in the manner of the sixties, mostly smooth and stylized, but as the decade progressed, more frenzied. Marc Bruni directs the entire production without stopping to catch a breath, keeping the action moving and the audience engaged, yet is able to draw us in to catch the many small actions and muted feelings that give Beautiful its sense of truth.

Alejo Vietti's costumes are spot-on in capturing the evolving trends of the sixties—oh, those wide lapels and bell bottoms!—and moving into the more earthy look of the early 1970s. Charles G. LaPointe deserves a shout--out for the wigs and hairstyles that similarly match the changing times. Derek McLane's set uses the bee-hive activity of the Brill Building, the epicenter of pop-music writing, as a backdrop, with flats that slide in and out to seamlessly move the action among various offices, apartments, homes, and nightclubs, abetted by Peter Kaczorowski's stage lighting.

You are going to love Beautiful: The Carole King Musical if you are a Carol King fan. You will also love it if you appreciate a well-wrought story about how people come together, break apart, and find the strength to move on. Sure, it is a common theme on the stage and the lessons to be learned may not be new. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tells its tale by way of some of the best songs of its era, a thoughtful book, dynamic staging, and powerful performances. That makes for a winning package, a show that is absolutely "some kind of wonderful."

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical played November 18 through November 29, 2015, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. For other tour cities and dates, go to Words and Music: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; Book: Douglas McGrath; Director: Mark Bruni; Choreographer: Josh Prince; Orchestrations, Vocal and Music Arrangements: Steve Sidwell; Scenic Design: Derek McLane; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Wig and Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Make-Up Design: Joe Delude II; Music Supervision and Additional Music Arrangements: Jason Howland; Music Director: Susan Draus; Music Coordinator: John Miller; Casting: Stephen Kopel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Eric Sprosty; General Manger: The Charlotte Wilcox Company; Executive Producers: Sherry Kondor and Christine Russell

Cast: Ashley Blanchet (Little Eva, Ensemble), Sarah Bockel (Betty, Ensemble), Curt Bouril (Don Kirshner), Andrew Brewer (Righteous Brother, Nick, Ensemble), Britney Coleman ("Uptown" singer, Ensemble), Rebecca E. Covington (Janelle Woods, Ensemble), Josh A. Dawson (Ensemble), John Michael Dias (Neil Sedaka, Righteous Brother, Lou Adler, Ensemble), Ben Fankhauser (Barry Mann), Suzanne Grodner (Genie Klein), Becky Gulsvig (Cynthia Weil), Abby Mueller (Carole King), Paris Nix (Ensemble), Noah J. Ricketts (Ensemble), Salisha Thomas (Lucille, Ensemble), Liam Tobin (Gerry Goffin), Delaney Westfall (Marilyn Wald, Ensemble), Dashaun Young (Ensemble).

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