Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TOP PICK -- Broadway Theater Review: Beautiful, The Carole King Musical

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.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Lord's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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