BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at The Kentucky Center For The Arts
Julia Knitel as Carole King. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath
Music and Lyrics by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, and Barry Mann
Directed by Marc Bruni
Review by Taylor Clemons
Entire contents copyright © 2017 Taylor Clemons. All rights reserved.
It's hard to believe that everyone doesn't know Carole King. Not saying that everyone on the planet is a die hard fan, but it seems that Miss King is enough a staple in pop culture that everyone has heard one of her songs (whether knowingly or not) or has heard her name. With such a remarkable following, it only seems that in this age of Jukebox musicals, Carole King's life story would get the musical theatre treatment. Beautiful premiered in San Francisco in 2013 before coming in to New York City in 2014. The show was met with positive reception, and went on to be nominated for several awards that season (losing Best Musical at the Tonys to A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, but winning Lead Actress for Jessie Mueller's fantastic portrayal of King). Carole King herself has been a big supporter of the show, and will state confidently that the story presented onstage is pretty much what happened (every show takes some kind of artistic licence).
The story of Beautiful is pretty simple. The narrative follows Carole's (Julia Knitel) progression from young scrappy teenage song writer, all the way through her success as a recording artist. The narrative is told mostly through book scenes, with popular music of the era thrown in. One treat the audience gets is an appreciation for Carole King the songwriter. In her early years before performing she and her husband/lyricist Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), she helped create massive hits performed by superstars of the time like The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva, and more. During Carole and Gerry's time at 1650 Broadway (the famous songwriting "factory" of NYC in the 60s), they become friends with Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson), who just happen to be another songwriting team whom Carole and Gerry would often compete.
The cast is uniformly strong. Julia Knitel as Carole King is absolutely spellbinding. She convincingly embodies Carole King, while never seeming like she's just doing an impression. She effortlessly pays homage to King, while letting bits and pieces of her own personality and vocal style shine through. The supporting cast is strong as well. Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser were especially delightful as Cynthia and Barry. They had wonderful chemistry, and provided a lot of comedic relief (as hard as it is to believe, there are some really dark moments in King's story). Mr. Fankhauser was easily an audience favorite, with almost every line being met with explosive laughter. While I'm talking about the cast, I must take some time to single out the incredible ensemble. They are easily one of the best sung ensembles I have seen in a really long time. Many of them play multiple roles including the various recording artists throughout the story.
The show itself follows the basic jukebox structure. The book serves the story well enugh, but basically acts a minimal connection from song to song. The big problem I see is with the show's structure, Act 1 specifically is that it starts to feel repetitive. So and so writes a song, so and so performs song, someone playing the recording artist performs the "radio" version of the song. The structure is unavoidable, but does start to get a bit stale halfway through the first act. However, as the tone shifts in Act 2, and that stale feeling goes away. It was very smart of the show's creators to include Barry and Cynthia as characters in this narrative. This really expanded the catalog of songs available. While it's King's story, it's not just 2.5 hours of non-stop Carole King. This ultimately works in the show's favor because it varies the music the you hear, and gives the audience a nice surprise by giving them something they weren't specifically expecting.
The set and costumes by Derek McLane and Alejo Vietti respectively, were both really great for this tour. It's obvious that for the costumes specifically, no expense was spared. I also must give props to Charles G LaPointe on his wonderful hair and wig design, especially in showing the aging and time passing of Carole King. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski was lovely. Invoking the mood needed for each specific scene whether it's a concert at Carnegie Hall or an dramatic argument.
I thoroughly enjoyed Beautiful for the most part. While the structure might get stale, everything else makes up for in spades. Especially the wonderful performance by Julia Knitel and her supporting cast. It's nothing groundbreaking, but it serves the purpose of a fun night out. If you like Carole King, or even if you don't, I guarantee there is something here for everyone.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
May 16 - 21, 2017
Whitney Hall in The Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202