Carole King is many things. An American composer who is a 2015 Kennedy Center Honoree. A singer-songwriter, responsible for the groundbreaking and generation defining album, Tapestry. A four time Grammy Award-winning artist, including both the prestigious and coveted Album of the Year and Record of the Year trophies. An inductee into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A recipient of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in December 2012. Adding to that illustrious list, the subject of a winning new musical, Beautiful The Carole King Story, making its national tour debut right here in Chicago. Borrowing the narratives from other successful bio-musicals including Jersey Boys, Motown the Musical and Dreamgirls, Beautiful uses the standard template, following an artist from humble beginnings to epic super-stardom. The solid direction from Marc Bruni and the inspired choreography of Josh Prince make up for any of the lulls from the book written by Douglas McGrath. The real star here is undoubtedly the music. In 2000, Billboard magazine named King the most successful female songwriter from 1955-1999 as she wrote or co-wrote 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100. Hearty, emotionally riddled musical numbers is the reason to invest your time in Beautiful.
We begin our jukebox journey with 16 year old Carol Klein, a Brooklyn girl with a gift for song writing and a passion to live a normal life in the suburbs, trying to convince her mother to let her go to Times Square to meet with a record publisher. The overbearing Jewish mother, Genie Klein (Suzanna Grodner) begrudgingly agrees. Quickly, teenaged songwriter, Carol (Abby Mueller) is signed, then partnered with handsome lyricist, Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin). They quickly fall in love, have a baby and get married. In that order. Record producer, Donnie Kirshner (Curt Bouril) plays this song writing duo against another set of up-and-coming music writing contemporaries, hypochondriac, Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig). The quartet begin a lifelong friendship and, simultaneously, a healthy professional rivalry. What a competition! These teams penned hit songs for artists like the Drifters, The Everly Brothers, the Shirelles, Little Eva and The Monkees. On Broadway, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, The Locomotion, and Pleasant Valley Sunday, to be specific. Their personal lives paralleled their private lives as well. “You had a fight, so we had to have a bigger fight” quips Weil. The remainder of the show follows the newly named Carole King through the eventual demise of her marriage and professional partnership with Gerry, who battled his own litany of issues including drugs, infidelity and mental illness. At times, the book plays much like a Lifetime television movie for women. The saving graces, the unflinchingly raw performance from Abby Mueller and the spectacular chain of musical numbers. Beginning with a toe tapping, explosive medley of hits from the 50’s and 60’s in an impressive, two-story set of metal cubicles, designed by Derek McLane, the visual parallels to both the recording studio machine and the hit makers, locked in their offices, cranking out bubblegum music to the masses, can’t be missed.
If Act One is the whirlwind ride up the fame ladder, Act two grounds the proceedings with richer emotional pathos. Set in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Carole has found herself at a cross roads, professionally, with the rise of singer songwriters, her composing skills are not as in demand by a recording industry looking for deeper meaning and personally, she is a divorcee in her late twenties, two kids and a cloudy future. It is here, the musical truly solidifies. Originally played on Broadway by Tony Award-winner, Jessie Mueller, and now played by her sister, Abby Mueller, King finding her own voice was the thread that connected the audience to her artistically. Or, put simply by her record producer in the show, “You’re a girl and you sing girl songs.” When Mueller sat down at the piano to belt out the rapturous, Its Too Late, the audience was left with chills. “And it’s too late, baby, now it’s too late. Though we really did try to make it. Somethin’ inside has died and I can’t hide and I just can’t fake it.” Her lifelong personal journey summed up in two remarkable sentences. As King prepares to relocate to Los Angeles, this lifelong New Yorker says good bye to her past with You’ve Got a Friend. Rounding out the musical, we learn the agony behind (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, the triumph of the title track, Beautiful, and the audience is invited to sing and dance along with the cast to a post curtain call hit, I Feel the Earth Move.
Transporting the actors through the glamor of the 1950’s, the political unrest of the 1960’s, and the bell bottoms of the 1970’s, the fantastic costume designs by Alejo Vietti and impressive wig and hair design of Charles G. LaPointe, delight. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design transplants the audience from the low-lit, midnight streets of Manhattan, to the sunny suburbs and finally, center stage, at Carnegie Hall, where Carole’s story both begins and ends. We know what happened. Tapestry topped the U.S album chart for 15 weeks in 1971. King went on to record an additional 25 solo albums. Beautiful the Musical was rewarded as well, with seven Tony Award nominations and two wins; Jessie Mueller took home the 2014 Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical and Brian Ronan received the Best Sound Design of a Musical. But accolades aside, Beautiful The Carole King Story has stunning, truly transcendent, moments of truth. The production numbers will have you both tapping a toe, then shedding a tear. While the story may not be perfect, the real reason to attend is the fabulous music.That, to make it crystal clear, is Some Kind of Wonderful.
Beautiful The Carole King Musical is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre through February 21, 2016.