Carole King bio-musical could have been more beautiful

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At the piano in the show Beautiful, from left, are Curt Bouril as producer Don Kirshner, Liam Tobin as Carole King’s writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin, Abby Mueller as Carole King, Ben Fankhauser as songwriter Barry Mann and Becky Gulsvig as his songwriting partner Cynthia Weil.Photo by Joan Marcus
At the piano in the show Beautiful, from left, are Curt Bouril as producer Don Kirshner, Liam Tobin as Carole King’s writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin, Abby Mueller as Carole King, Ben Fankhauser as songwriter Barry Mann and Becky Gulsvig as his songwriting partner Cynthia Weil.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Beautiful, the title of the bio-musical covering 15 Carole King penned songs — and another 20 classic pop standards from the late 1950s through the ‘70s — doesn’t live up to its title.

This 2014 Broadway jukebox piece, which won a Tony for lead actress Jessie Mueller, is at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Oct. 25, eliciting knowing murmurs throughout the audience every time the chords from another King classic are played.

Mueller’s sister, Abby, has taken on the lead role for this national tour. She does a lovely job, but it’s a tough sell in this entirely ordinary plug-and-play theater piece.

We know some of King’s life story from her very personal song lyrics, particularly later in her career — along with an autobiography, Natural Woman, which was published in 2012 — but the stage version just touches on select portions of the singer-songwriter’s life. And it is so formulaically told through Douglas McGrath’s script and mundanely directed by Marc Bruni that the even her lovely and luscious songs lose their luster.

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King, a songwriter whose works with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, and on her own contributed to the changing musical temperament of the era, was active as the 1950s turned into the 1960s and bobby socks and big hair gave way to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. On the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage, the warren-like offices and recording studios of 1619 Broadway, the famous Brill Building, serve as the anchor for the piece, which traces King’s journey from her Brooklyn youth as a 16-year-old song-writing prodigy to her triumphant 1971 debut at Carnegie Hall more than a decade later.

A graduate of James Madison High School, where she briefly dated classmate Neil Sedaka and crossed paths with Paul Simon — there must have been something in that Brooklyn water — King called herself the “square girl” and meant it.

We meet King as Carole Klein in her childhood home, where an upright piano dominates the living room and her Jewish mother just dominates. Her mother, Genie Klein — unfortunately broadly played as a Jewish mother stereotype by Suzanne Grodner — urges her to abandon her dream of becoming a songwriter and focus on becoming a music teacher. Steady work. Each time Grodner shows up, she’s taxed with quips and complaints that undermine her daughter, enough to make a girl cry, “Oy.” As King, Mueller matures from eager but naive songwriting teen to hardworking partner in a hit-making songwriting duo to, finally, an independent woman who has found her voice.

Just starting out in the hotbed of music creativity concentrated in the Brill Building, King rubbed shoulders with musical greats as they were starting careers — Sedaka, Simon, the Righteous Brothers, the Shirelles and more. Nearly all of those writing teams, producers and many of the session artists behind the scenes were Jews. Though there wasn’t a Jewish undertone to most of their music — sappy love songs, close sung harmony and silly worded dance crazes — there was a creatively competitive collegiality and neighborhood-like feel to the whole endeavor. And while music and theater historians frequently note with high praise the Jewish subtext and undertones of the golden age of the Broadway musical created predominantly by first-generation American Jews including Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bock and Harnick, and Sondheim, the 1960s pop sensations haven’t always received that same recognition of Jewish roots aside from, say, folk music prophet Bob Dylan.

But it can’t be ignored that from producers and label executives to singer-songwriter teams to session artists and agents, Jews contributed mightily to the new sounds of the 1960s.

The bold-faced names in the burgeoning pop music business in New York of the 1950s and 1960s featured in Beautiful include producer Don Kirshner (here played woodenly by Curt Bouril), crooner Sedaka (personality-less John Michael Dias), competitive partners Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (bright beacon Becky Gulsvig and dour Ben Fankhauser, representing another overused Jewish stereotype — the nebbishy hypochondriac).

A glimpse of King’s difficult first marriage to her writing partner Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) needs more depth. What the piece neglects is the grist that went into crafting those hit singles. Instead of getting a glimpse of being present at the creation of King’s works, Beautiful simply spins out recognizable popular hit after hit, threaded together though the loose outline of King’s life.

During a season in which women’s voices are being heralded and belted from stages through the Washington region as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, it’s disappointing that as beautiful as Mueller’s singing voice may be, the true beauty in dramatizing King’s journey would be in coming to know how she discovered her own musical voice and her independence. Despite a terrific songbook of numbers embellished with Josh Prince’s stylized jazz choreography, and a powerful singer filling King’s shoes, the earth doesn’t move in Beautiful.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, through Oct. 25, Kennedy Center Opera House, Washington; ticket information: (202) 467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Interestingly the musical has generally had 4 and 5 star reviews in London’s West End, although the juke-box element is mentioned.
    Surprisingly, some of the younger (and even older) generation aren’t always familiar with the song-writing of Carole King.
    “Hands up, if you don’t know the name Carole King (apart from it being the title of this review)? Yep. I counted myself in that number until going to the Aldwych Theatre to see “Beautiful The Carole King Musical” when I discovered I not only knew the name, but knew and loved virtually everything this highly talented singer/songwriter had ever put together.”
    and this reviewer ended up writing
    “A truly awesome show that, and can I make a prediction? This fabulous show will go all the way.”

    Will Beautiful The Carole King Musical be a long-running production? One of the key factors will be the returning theatregoer… only time will tell…
    Quote from:
    https://www.londontheatre1.com/news/103410/awesome-5-star-beautiful-the-carole-king-musical/

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