Carole King's Story Made Beautiful with a Beautifully Written Book
By Lauren Yarger
In the land of jukebox musicals, one thing makes the difference between a good one (Jersey Boys, for example) and a not-so-good one: the book.
On stage, there really needs to be a plausible story to link favorite songs by a particular artist, or you might as well just call it a revue, play the songs and get off stage. When plot is contrived to make an excuse to sing the next song, we see Broadway at its worst.
This is not the case for the Carole King Musical Beautiful with an excellent book by Douglas McGrath which just opened on Broadway. In fact the book is so good, I'm going to take a leap here, and say I think it's the best book of a musical that tries to theatrically bring pop hits to the stage that I ever have seen. In this case, the songs are those written by King and Gerry Goffin as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
So skilfull is the plot and telling of the life of music legend Carole King (sensitively and skillfully portrayed by Jessie Mueller), that if I hadn't known better, I would have thought that the songs had been written specifically for this musical. There are no hokey build ups, humorous puns or other gimmicks to get to a song. They simply tell the story, or express how the character feels.
King's story is personal, moving and surprising. At least it was for me. I became aware of the singer during the "Tapestry" album era in the 1970s, but had absolutely no idea that she had written so many rock and roll classics. As tunes like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "Up on the Roof," and the "Locomotion" were performed (with choreography by Josh Prince) I discovered King had written a lot of songs I knew before I knew who she was.
This autobiographical story follows the composer from age 16, when she hopes to be a song writer and tries to sell her tunes to music promoter "Donnie" Kirschner (an engaging Jeb Brown). When she meets fellow college student and lyric writer Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein) a professional and personal partnership takes off. They marry young and have a child, so Gerry spends most of his time working a day job to earn enough to move the little family into their own place and out of the home of Carole's mother (Liz Larsen) who never has been supportive of her daughter's song-writing ambitions.
"Girls don't write music; they teach is," she tells Carole, who went on to write dozens of chart hits.
Carole and Gerry struggle through his depression issues and infidelity. They find friendship with the rival songwriting team of Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) who see their professional relationship deepen into a personal one. Their tunes, like "He Sure is the Boy I Love," You've Lost That Loving Feeling," "Walking in the Rain," and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" fill out the musical's score.
Director Marc Bruni's vision combines the story with visual elements (there's a fabulous staging of a Broadway Melody near the top of the show) to make the production entertaining as well as a piece of theater. Alejo Vietti designs costumes for the multiple characters and recreates some of the fashions from the era.
That said, there are a couple of areas that could use improvement, notably the musical direction. No one holds the title and it's obvious. Steve Sidwell does the orchestrations and vocal and music arrangements and Jason Howland supervises the music and additional arrangements. Arrangements for group numbers by The Drifters (E. Clayton Cornelious, Douglas Lyons, Alexander J. Robinson and James Harkness) and The Shirelles (Ashley Blanchet, Alysha Deslorieux, Carly Hughes) result in voices not being mixed well. To make matters worse, the sound (Brian Ronan, design) was not mixed well either. Some signers are loud, other we can't hear. Leads are drowned out by backups, etc. There also were loud pops and feedback the night I attended.
Jessie Mueller, Anika Larson, Jarrod Spector, and Jake Epstein in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater (c) Joan Marcus
Beautiful plays at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd St., NYC.http://www.beautifulonbroadway.com.
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