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Review: BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Returns to Dr. Phillips Center; Still Better Than Most Jukebox Musicals

Timeless tunes shine in a biography with different story beats...

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL returns to Dr. Phillips Center this weekend for the second time in just six years, an add-on option for the pandemic-shuffled 2021-2022 Fairwinds Broadway in Orlando Season.

Sitting in the audience last time, BEAUTIFUL struck me as just slightly better than all the other jukebox musicals mining superstars' oeuvres of late.

This time, I wanted to pay close attention to why.

One answer is obvious. Carole King's contributions to American music are as formidable as Cole Porter's or Irving Berlin's. An astounding 118 hits have gone from her pen to the top pop charts, and BEAUTIFUL's song list is assembled from the very best of them. Never do more than a few minutes pass without one of the world's all-time catchiest songs cranking up on stage.

But BEAUTIFUL is structured differently than most "backstage biomusicals." It's not a rags to riches story, exactly, nor the routine tale of one woman's ascent to superstardom. Mercifully, we are spared the obligatory plot points of that particular formula. King never learns her contract is unconscionable nor fires a manager in dramatic fashion. There is no descent into addiction, fall from grace, dramatic career slump, or climatic comeback.

Rather, this is a light-on-its-feet musical about two things: (1) marriage in the 1960s and (2) the creative process. All of the first act and much of the second concern King's rocky partnership with co-writer-turned-husband Gerry Goffin and their loving rivalry with another legendary songwriting couple, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

Those elements unfold according to their own respective story formulas, never quite so interesting that they'd stand out in a "Behind the Music" marathon. But they do set BEAUTIFUL apart from the pack and allow the pop songs to emerge organically at all times.

Douglas McGrath's book dispenses with the genre's notoriously awkward shoehorning of lyrics into stories they don't fit. These songs are sung simply because the characters are writing them, and that works just fine. It makes the one instance where a song does (fittingly) become an in-character outpouring of emotion that more impactful.

By the time BEAUTIFUL gets around to King's coronation as a household name, the show is wrapping up and we all breathe a sigh of relief that this wasn't another exercise in "How to Get Famous." McGrath trusts the audience to know how big a deal the making of Tapestry is without having to spell it out.

Sara Sheperd, who understudied the role on Broadway, is a credible Carole King - as vibrant and easy to like as the creator of "You've Got a Friend" ought to be. Some of the most winning moments come from her easy rapport with Rachel Coloff, who gets big laughs as Carole's mom, Genie Klein.

As has been the case for others in the role, Sheperd's voice is bigger and more pristine than King's famously imperfect alto. The Broadway-ification of King's songbook is to be expected in a Broadway musical, but it does at times compromise the singer-songwriter rock and rasp that made King a transformative figure in popular music.

Adam Dietlein joins the touring company as a replacement for James D. Gish in the role of Gerry Goffin. His overwrought Brooklyn accent detracts from an otherwise competent performance. Sara King has obvious star power as Cynthia Well (a role she also played on Broadway), but while she performs the character with gusto as directed, you can't help but think she'd be even better in a role written less broadly. Ryan Farnsworth gives the principal cast's most grounded performance as Barry Mann.

BEAUTIFUL isn't without its imperfections. There's some incredulous exposition in service of the fast pace, a tendency to play loose with chronology for the same sake, and a CBS sitcom sense of humor. (A few too many jokes boil down to, "Marriage amirite?") But as jukebox revues go, this one's worthier than most of your spare change.

BEAUTIFUL's run at Dr. Phillips Center lasts just three nights, opening May 13 and closing May 15 before continuing its slate of recently rescheduled North American dates - so short a stay they didn't even bother bringing a merch booth with them (or perhaps that owed more to the many empty seats I saw on opening night). Meanwhile, Dr. Phillips Center has two shows left in its resuscitated 2021-2022 Broadway season and just announced a stacked set of shows for 2022-2023. Tickets and season subscriptions are available from Dr. Phillips Center and Broadway Across America.

What do you think of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo: "Carnegie Hall. Sara Sheperd as 'Carole King.'" Photo by Joan Marcus. Used with permission, courtesy of Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

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