On Stage: Troubled Beauty

by Chuck Conconi

The talented cast of ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ will transport you back to the 1960s. 

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

From L to R:  Curt Bouril (“Don Kirshner”), Liam Tobin (“Gerry Goffin”), Abby Mueller (“Carole King”), Ben Fankhauser (“Barry Mann”), Becky Gulsvig (“Cynthia Weil”) and the Company of Beautiful. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

A hit production like “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is a predetermined success with its array of memorable songs such as “Take Good Care of my Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “Locomotion,” “Uptown,” “One Fine Day,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin Feeling.” It is an enticing review of all those 1960s hits Carole King wrote during her successful, complicated life.

King sold her first song at 16, and with her husband Gerry Goffin, the handsome lyricist she met at Queen’s college, wrote a number of top of the chart hits. The script of “Beautiful” is formulaic; King was virtually an overnight success. Her marriage to Goffin, however, was complicated and disastrous even while the couple was producing all those now nostalgia-producing songs. They even wrote a hit song, “The Locomotion,” for their babysitter Little Eva.

The story line from the book by Douglas McGrath is thin but serves as a useful framework on which to hang the songs by King and Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, successful competitors and friends. Learning from the success of “Jersey Boys,” “Beautiful” is an almost Las Vegas show, fast-paced and colorful. Derek Mclane’s scenic design and Peter Kaczorowski’s multi-colored lighting is the kind of flashy showmanship that attracts infrequent theater-goers who come out for Broadway musical spectaculars, and “Beautiful” is well worth coming out to see.

“Beautiful” is an irresistible, energetic, fast-paced production with a talented cast of young singers and dancers. It is a show that earns and deserves the success it has achieved. What is so much fun are the performers that imitate the legendary groups of the time singing the King/Goffin, Mann/Weil hits — groups such as the Drifters, The Shirelles and the Righteous Brothers. The stylized performance moves of the Drifters, at first caused a tittering in the Kennedy Center audience as they sang the King/Goffin hit, “Some King of Wonderful.” It soon subsided with the realization that this was how The Drifters actually performed in the expected smooth, but jerky choreography of the 1960s.

King, masterfully portrayed by Abby Mueller (whose sister won a Tony for her performance in the role) is the self-effacing young girl from an ethnic Brooklyn neighborhood who dreams of becoming a song writer, while her mother, in a cliché, comedic relief role, tries to direct her into a more traditional profession. Mueller has a believable presence with a superb voice.

She sells her first song, meets the handsome, troubled Gerry Goffin, becomes pregnant and is married with a daughter at 18. Even though the couple is successful, Goffin is a philanderer and is emotionally unstable. King’s personal world collapses, but she is talked into singing her own songs and goes in a new direction, moves to California and records her smash album “Tapestry” that includes her hit, “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.” It was in 1971 the best-selling album of all time and brought King a number of music awards including making her the first woman to receive the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and the first woman to win the Grammy for Song of the Year in “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Liam Tobin, as the troubled Goffin, clearly is a man who can’t help who he is, especially when he tells King that he wants to sleep with singer, Janelle Woods, the lovely Rebecca E. Covington. Ben Frankhauser as the hypochondriac Barry Mann and his cowriter and rational wife Becky Gulsvig as the beautiful, talented Cynthia Weil, also successful songsmiths, are a stable contrast to their troubled friends. Their songs are also an important look at the rapidly expanding new music of the 1960s.

King went on to live on the West Coast and a career of continued success that included coming back to New York to play Carnegie Hall. “Beautiful” is King’s story, but as it should be, it is the music, the songs and the stunning talented cast that are not to be missed.

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” continues through October 25 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St., NW. Tickets ate $49-$195 and can be purchased at 202-467-4600 or online here

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