Review: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at The Kennedy Center

TheatreBloom rating:

Sometimes life goes the way you want it to. And sometimes it doesn’t. But when it doesn’t, sometimes you find something beautiful. And Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is what can be found on the Opera House Stage of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts this October. Living up to its title, with Words and Music by the infamous Carole King, as well as Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil, and a Book by Douglas McGrath, the evening is filled with the iconic and treasured tunes of Carole King and her story of breaking into the business from the bouncy beginning through to the bittersweet end. The prediction stands that this musical is going all the way, and it’s going to stay in a number one spot for quite some time. Directed by Marc Bruni, there is a sunshine smile waiting for every pair of ears coming to see the show.

Natural Woman. Foreground: Abby Mueller (“Carole King”). Background: (l to r) Britney Coleman, Sarah Bockel and Ashley Blanchet.
Natural Woman. Foreground: Abby Mueller (“Carole King”). Background: (l to r) Britney Coleman, Sarah Bockel and Ashley Blanchet. Joan Marcus

While the book itself is slightly banal, as not every great musician who broke into the business during the era of rock-n-roll could have a sensationalized dramatic story filled with razzle-dazzle and flare, the story’s simplicity matches the beautiful simplicity of King’s music. Director Marc Bruni encourages a natural pacing throughout the performance, keeping the story moving. Book writer Douglas McGrath takes a formulaic approach to the story, following a repetitious pattern of moving from scene to song with snippet intros of said song being performed by the principle leads before being handed off, albeit fluidly, to the performers playing The Drifters and The Shirelles. For a basic jukebox musical featuring influential female music of the 50’s and 60’s the show is not without its charm.

Aesthetically the set is a little busy. Scenic Designer Derek McLane constructs two layers of iron-wrapped framework whose intricate patterns are noticeable, though decorative, throughout the intense light show infused behind them, as crafted by Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski. McLane’s patterned back walls also have a great deal occurring on them, particularly the one used to denote the recording studio and office. While not entirely distracting, once the flashing concert style lights get going it becomes a bit much and pulls focus from the performance at times.

Costume Designer Alejo Vietti keeps with the overall simplistic vibe of the song when it comes to outfitting the principle characters. Though their clothing is reflective of the late 50’s and early to mid 60’s, there is nothing overly flashy or ornate about the design work. It’s in the costumes of the musical performers, like The Drifters and The Shirelles, where Vietti’s design work gets to shine. Glittery, colorful and often in ways that match the blinking light designs of the musical numbers that they are performing, the couture saved for these musical performers is of the iconic nostalgia that people remember from the era.

While most jukebox musicals are not known for their intensive dance work, Choreographer Josh Prince finds a great many places to sneak in well-recognized dance routines of the times among all of the heavy dialogue and simple solo scenes played out in the various domestic locations. Prince uses the musical performers to execute his dance routines and they are snappy, especially those featuring the male ensemble. With zip and panache in their footwork, the dancers work their way through popular numbers like “The Locomotion” and really rev up the tempo of the scene with Prince’s choreography.

(l to r) Curt Bouril (“Don Kirshner”), Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”), Abby Mueller (“Carole King”), Ben Fankhauser (“Barry Mann”) and Becky Gulsvig (“Cynthia Weil”).
(l to r) Curt Bouril (“Don Kirshner”), Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”), Abby Mueller (“Carole King”), Ben Fankhauser (“Barry Mann”) and Becky Gulsvig (“Cynthia Weil”). Joan Marcus

Highlights of the performance include the actualization of the popularized songs coming to life through the performers credited as The Drifters (Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Noah J. Ricketts, Dashaun Young) and The Shirelles (Ashley Blanchet, Britney Coleman, Rebecca e. Covington, Salisha Thomas.) “On Broadway” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” receive their due verve and spunk when these eight performers, the men and women respectively, pick them up and perform them with class and Prince’s choreography underscoring the numbers. Blanchett, as Little Eva, gives a rousing rendition of “The Locomotion” as well. But the scene-stealing moment from the ensemble is when The Righteous Brothers (Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias) take to the stage for “”You’ve Lost The Lovin’ Feeling.” Brewer and Dias snag everyone’s attention with their swanky, soulful crooning, giving that number the life of the decade that it deserves.

Though not singing, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner) and Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril) balance out the sweet emotions of the musically inclined characters with their salty personalities and ripe senses of humor. Grodner, who plays the stereotypical meddling and worrisome Brooklyn mother figure, delivers a refreshing burst of nagging humor when it comes to interacting with Carole. Bouril, as the big-shot music producer, does the same though in a much more abrupt fashion. Both performers have tender moments encapsulated within their roles, which juxtapose smoothly against their otherwise lighthearted and quirky nature.

Bursting onto the scene as a blinding light of bubbly brassy brilliance is Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig.) Radiating resplendence from the moment she arrives in the studio through to her final goodbyes with Carole, Gulsvig delivers a character that is filled with the sunshine of life. Filled with effervescence, Gulsvig bounces through “Happy Days are Here Again” and it instantly becomes a crowd-pleaser. Playing opposite is the hypochondriacally inclined Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser.) With adorably spastic tendencies, Fankhauser is the perfect complement and foil to Gulsvig’s Cynthia. Their emotional relationship is dictated by their music, and the sentiments echoed from their songs into their chemistry is well delivered. From “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” through to Walking in the Rain” their voices, both radiant and robust with rich feeling, pair delightfully together.

Queens College. Abby Mueller (“Carole King”) and Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”).
Queens College. Abby Mueller (“Carole King”) and Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”). Joan Marcus

Smooth looking, fast talking, music man Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) sets the stage ablaze with his charisma. Tobin displays a sharp understanding of how the music industry gets inside one’s head and distorts reality sometimes for the better and other times for the worse. Following Carole’s lead-in for “Some Kind of Wonderful”, Tobin’s voice reverberates with the sentiments of the song in a direct reflection of his life situation with her in that moment. Sharing several duets throughout the performance with Carole King (Abby Mueller), Tobin settles into a comfortable niche of blended harmony and sincere musical delivery, particularly for “Take Good Care of my Baby.” His lead-in solo during “Up on the Roof” is also a number worthy of praise.

Carnegie Hall. Abby Mueller (“Carole King”).
Carnegie Hall. Abby Mueller (“Carole King”). Joan Marcus

Carrying the story of Carole King, Abby Mueller does a sensational job of embodying the musician who has come to be so well-loved through time. With her nasally Brooklyn sound that never quite fades away even when that city life is far behind her, Mueller discovers the internal workings of King’s emotions and takes the audience on a journey of self-discovery through the lens that is her music. With a strong and powerful voice, Mueller opens the show with “So Far Away.” Her reprise coda of “One Fine Day” is a harrowing turning point in the show that fulfills the emotional void of dramatic tension leading out of the first act. Her finest work is displayed late in the performance where Mueller connects on a deeper and more soulful level with the music. “It’s Too Late” is a regenerative approach to her own internal strength, discovering through the bittersweet song that she can survive even the worst of it. “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” bursts out of Mueller with such gusto and heart that it shakes the audience soundly in their core. But it’s the title song, delivered as the show’s closing number, where Mueller discovers the spirit of survival and accomplishment are one in the same.

A remarkably well-performed musical with an exceptionally talented cast, the show will please anyone who is a fan of Carole King’s music, anyone who enjoys jukebox musicals, and anyone who loves simple stories told through song. Don’t hesitate to experience this beautiful musical as it is only in town for a limited engagement.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays through October 25, 2015 on the Opera House Stage of The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts— 2700 F Street NW in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or purchase them online.

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