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Theater Review: ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ is a Lifetime of Song-Filled Brilliance

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Average: 5 (2 votes)

CHICAGO – Carole King, from modest roots and beginnings, went on to become the most successful female songwriter of the last forty years of the 20th Century. So this “natural woman” was perfect for a musical overview of her life and great songs, in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

The structure and songs are the highlight of King’s life story, starting in the late 1950s on Tin Pan Alley (the songwriting strip of Broadway in New York City) to a triumphant Carnegie Hall Concert as a 1970s solo act. Along the way there are the social changes of the 1960s and a legendary songwriting partnership, in addition to the sorrow of the breakup and the evolution of starting over. It is the American Dream and the American songbook rolled into one breezy evening, and the truth of Carole King within the musical is evident from beginning to end.

Abby Mueller
Abby Mueller is Carole King in ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
Photo credit: Broadway in Chicago

Carole “Klein” King (Abby Mueller) was a 16 year-old prodigy from Brooklyn, who longed to be a pop music composer. She was discovered by Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), whose Aldon Music contracted her first song. At the same time, she was attending college, and met Gerry Goffin (LIam Tobin), who would become both her husband and writing partner. Goffin and King wrote hit after hit, including “Chains,” “The Loco-motion” and “Up on the Roof.” Also at Aldon, they struck up a friendly rivalry with Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), who were also partners and songwriters. When King split with Goffin over infidelities, that transition also made her a solo artist, and she scored a concert at Carnegie Hall and a million seller album called “Tapestry.”

“Beautiful” works better than other so-called “jukebox musicals” because the story weaves so perfectly within the evolution of Carole King’s music. Douglas McGrath, who wrote the book to the musical, told HollywoodChicago.com that “her life is the history of pop music from the late 1950s through the ‘70s,” and that rings true from a song progression that includes “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to “It’s Too Late” – the latter being one of the greatest break up songs ever, and infectious enough to linger long after the show. King was an open book – who happened to write pop songs that everyone loved – so despite her rocky relationship and 1960s angst, the beneficiary was the record buying public.

It is the women of the cast who are the strongest. Abby Mueller as Carole King handles both the acting and the singing with amazing grace. Close your eyes, and the distinctive vocal styles of King emulate from the stage. Becky Gulsvig as “rival” Cynthia Weil is all vinegar and honey, she nearly steals the show. The men are window dressing, with Ben Fankhauser displaying the proper tics in portraying Barry Mann, and Liam Tobin severely underplaying the myriad of emotions asked of the Gerry Goffin character. But the real star, after all, is the music, and the production brilliantly showcases the formulations of the actual groups and individuals who had Goffin/King hits (The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva), with a backing cast who personifies them.

Scene From ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
Photo credit: Broadway in Chicago

What the musical also does nicely is handle the transition to Carole King as solo artist. She improbably had a “chapter two” as a major singer/songwriter, with the album “Tapestry” becoming a standard when it was released in 1971, and went on to sell 25 million copies. The hits on that disk include “So Far Away,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Beautiful” and the aforementioned ear-worm, “It’s Too Late.” The scope of such a career is almost emotionally successful.

“Well it’s too late, baby now, it’s too late, though we really did try to make it/Something inside has died and I can’t hide and I just can’t take it.” A perfect pop meditation in a perfect pop song, and yes, now you’ll be hearing it in your head for a couple of days. You’ve got a friend in Carole King.

”Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” opens December 1st, 2015, and runs through February 21st, 2016, at the Oriental Theatre – 24 West Randolph Street in Chicago – Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30pm (Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday 2pm matinee), and Saturdays at 8pm. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets. Songs by Carole King and others. Book written by Douglas McGrath. Directed by Marc Bruni.

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2015 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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