Beautiful–The Carole King Musical takes the audience on a ride through songs that in three minutes or so, framed and reflected many a life; especially of the Baby Boomer generation. As directed by Marc Bruni, certainly the earth moved under the feet of the over 2,300 in attendance at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House as they took in a finely-accomplished, tuneful, with an utterly likeable and talented cast, Beautiful–The Carole King Musical.
The audience knew what they wanted and came for. They got it as over two dozen songs powered their way or softly wafted through the elegant KenCen surroundings. The arc of the two and a half hour production opens and concludes with Carole King’s legendary 1971 performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. But know that the show is much more than just lovely sung selections from Carole King’s mega-hit 1971 album Tapestry such as “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel Like)A Natural Woman,” and “Beautiful.”
As Carole King, Abby Mueller, delivered the goods with a sweet voice and a kind of inner reluctance to stand-out-and shine acting style. There is nothing over-blown, tell-all, or arrogant in her portrayal of King. It is a performance that is a warm hug near a crackling fire-place, rather than a loud, look-at-me shouted aria. Her performance is the soft glue of the evening. One could truly believe she would always be there as a friend even in a competitive world.
The show is packed, and I mean packed to over-abundance, with 1960’s juke-box numbers King wrote with her then partner/husband Gerry Goffin. Many of these early numbers might have left some to say, “I didn’t know she wrote that.” These were the 45 rpm recordings that were emotional tales of teen-age love and heartbreak. A short list of these AM radio and American Bandstand hits started with the wistful “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” through the plaintive “Up on the Roof,” winding through to the infectious good beat that you can dance to, “The Locomotion.”
Beautiful also includes sharp 1960’s numbers written by another husband-and-wife song-writing team of those time and competitors to King/Goffin. They are Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Their numbers included “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” and “We’ve Got to Get Out of this Place,” among others.
The Beautiful cast is full of wonderfully charming singing talents who each have their turn to provide rich nostalgic smiles to the audience (but not in a tribute type-band manner of singing). Each brings a personality to the character they perform.
Liam Tobin is convincing enough playing Gerry Goffin with a blunted edge portraying the myriad of personal issues the book by Douglas McGrath suggests Goffin brought to the King/Goffin relationship. One line that depicts the fears of a creative person seeing the end of his world struck deep as I heard it. It is when Tobin said with feeling “I can’t hear it” in reaction to the new music of the later 1960’s that wiped out his musical world. He knew he couldn’t compete with Dylan. Becky Gulsvig as a commitment-adverse Cynthia Weil and Ben Fankhauser as hypochondriac Barry Mann are both simply delightful comic foils to the more serious King/Goffin partnership.
Then there are the faux Drifters, Shirelles, and Little Eva. What can I say beyond sweet perfection for their glorious harmonies, the flash of brilliant choreographed moves (by Choreographer Josh Prince) and the totally “right” attire (by Costume Designer Alejo Vietti). Whenever they performed in Act I, they brought the house down with well-deserved sustained applause.
Are the weaknesses? Yes, not of the touring show performers, but rather in the undemanding book with its rather glossy back-stories, where competition is not cut-throat but seen as cutely comical and between friends, changing sex mores are played out in a strip-poker game, and race issues of the day get a quick, softly worded comment about white song writers composing for the black groups of the day. But Beautiful is totally entertaining.
Let us give a bit tip-of-the-hat to The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra with Jay Crowder at the helm, and the guest musicians who powered the evening along. And there is an affective scenic design by Derek McLane, an often dazzling show-biz colorful lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound by Brian Ronan and overall music supervision from Jason Howland.
The night I was at Beautiful, I saw many silently mouthing the words of hit after hit in joy and reverie. To quote Beautiful’s fictionalized Don Kirchner character, “There is not a way to not like it.”
If you crave the songs you first heard on American Bandstand or your AM-only transistor radio held close to your ear, or you still have your vinyl copy of Tapestry, then Beautiful-The Carole King Musical at The Kennedy Center is for you!
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with one intermission
Beautiful-The Carole King Musical plays through October 25, 2015 at The Kennedy Center Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.