BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL Strikes a Boomer Chord
There was a special vibe at Belk Theater on opening night of BEAUTIFUL THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL. I'd seen the Belk packed to the rafters on opening nights before, but I'd never seen such a preponderance of 60-and-overs. When I saw the show on Broadway in 2014, I rated it behind three other musicals in my annual roundup and felt compelled to note that nearly all of the matinee crowd I sat with were women, not a good omen for longevity.
Well, all the shows I rated more highly - After Midnight, Newsies, and A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - have closed and, still selling over 93% of available tickets for the week just ended, BEAUTIFUL is still going strong, sure to become the longest-running of these shows in the next two months. Clearly there's a bond between couples who spooned to this music in their youth that's nearly as strong as the bond between women and King.
Early in the show, when King (née Klein) sells her first song to Don Kirschner at the legendary Brill Building at 1650 Broadway, we're reminded that women composers writing pop music was a far-out concept when this 16-year-old crossed the Brooklyn Bridge in 1958 to break into the biz. Later on, we find out that King herself was beset with a common bias, ruling out a singing career for herself because she wasn't a knockout beauty.
So she's not a feminist crusader whose story might put guys off. In fact, she's sort of a homebody whose dream was to settle down with her writing partner and husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin, and become a happy work-at-home mom. And of course, the spray of hit songs King and Goffin wrote puts extra distance between King and the sisterhood of soft rock. "Take Good Care of My Baby" was championed by Bobby Vee, "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up on the Roof" went to the Drifters, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" climbed to the top of the charts for the Shirelles, and "The Locomotion" danced away with Little Eva - the songwriting team's babysitter!
We hear the difference between the simple birthing of King and Goffin's first masterpiece, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and the pop hit manufacturing that went into the Shirelles' version, but this is where orchestrator/arranger Steve Sidwell begins to go terribly wrong. The string arrangement that Douglas McGrath cites in his superb book goes missing in the Shirelles' performance - because Sidwell is clearly bent on a bigger, brassier Broadway sound. He thinks he knows his audience, but we're actually trying to forgive his overreaching trespasses. The Shirelles have become the Shrills.
The Drifters and Little Eva are glitzed to such an appalling extent that only the Drifters' "On Broadway" is nearly tolerable. But that song is by another writing team, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, whose friendly rivalry with King and Goffin is artfully woven into the script. Another Mann-Weil hit, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," just barely escapes the purgatory of too-too-much when sung by The Righteous Brothers.
As King's marriage to Goffin falls apart and our heroine picks up the pieces, we shed the singers who commercialized King's work, centering more upon the five characters who matter. That makes Act 2 of BEAUTIFUL more pleasurable and meaningful. Marc Bruni directs in such an instinctual way that we learn to anticipate those moments when King is going to hatch one of her masterworks. All is hushed for at least a moment before each of these landmark births.
Maybe the first time you hear the introductory chords for "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" won't wrench your guts and tear ducts, but I was pretty helpless the second time around. Abby Mueller has captured King's sound so completely that I had to check my playbill to make sure that she hadn't sung the role on Broadway. No, that Tony Award winner was Jessie Mueller, whom I've confirmed is Abby's sister.
"It's Too Late," the song that transitions us to King's blockbuster Tapestry album, is just a prelude to the devastating one-two punch that follows. Leaving New York for LA calls for one last get-together with Kirschner, Mann, and Weil, a sentimental occasion that gets weepy for me when they're all singing "You've Got a Friend." What starts off consoling the New Yorkers stamps those New Yorkers as her support group. Then at the recording studio in LA, Lou Adler coaxes King into singing one last track that will lighten up the dark blue night that the other songs have created so well - and we hear the most joyous and heartfelt of them all, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
Mueller hits that one out of the park, just like her sister did. But the other principals are all excellent. Curt Bouril is not quite the stern taskmaster his Broadway counterpart was as Kirschner - but Kirschner probably wasn't, either. Liam Tobin gives Goffin a volatility and a nastier edge than I detected from the original cast, which makes the marriage seem unsalvageable sooner, maybe a plus. As Weil, Becky Gulsvig didn't seem quite as brainy and intimidating as I remembered, but that could be because Ben Fankhauser was so sensational as the hypochondriacal Mann.
This Mann had a Midas voice. Whether it was "Walking in the Rain" or the nonsensical five-syllable wo's that keep repeating in "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," every time he opened his mouth to sing, what we heard was gold.