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BWW Review: A BEAUTIFUL Life in Song – Carole King Musical Opens National Tour in Providence

Music provides powerful ties to memory; a popular song's opening chords have the ability to wake fond reminiscences or to create an indelible tie to major life events. Lyrics and melodies become the voice for a generation and, sometimes without our notice, form the soundtrack for our lives. And then there are the songwriters whose work defines an era. Carole King is unquestionably in this elite company.

Hit songs like "You've Got a Friend," "So Far Away," and "I Feel the Earth Move" established King's voice in the public consciousness, but long before the record-breaking Tapestry album garnered international acclaim, King's musical gifts were already hard at work shaping the most enduring sounds of 1950s and 60s pop music. This is the story that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical brings to audiences: King's life before she stepped into the spotlight, the relationships that spurred on her musical gifts, and the love and heartbreak that infused the notes of each Billboard hit single she penned.

Carole King - born Carole Klein - knew she was destined to be a songwriter. She sold her first pop song at 16 years old and never looked back. That same year, she met her writing partner and husband-to-be, Gerry Goffin, became pregnant with her first child, and started producing hit after hit for some of the biggest artists of the day. The Shirelles ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"), The Drifters ("Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof"), Bobby Vee ("Take Good Care of My Baby"), and The Monkees ("Pleasant Valley Sunday") - to name only a few - owe some of their greatest successes to the talents of King and Goffin.

Beautiful chronicles this chapter in King's life primarily through means of song. This show is a biographical jukebox musical - heavy on the music - letting the songs tell the story as much as (if not more so than) the players' spoken dialogue. King and Goffin fall in love, navigate their working relationship and their marriage, and grow together and apart through the notes and lyrics they write.

Beautiful's national tour kicks off in Providence, and even in the first days of performance, the cast proves the depth of its talent and ability. Abby Mueller takes center stage as King. She has big shoes to fill; not only is she portraying one of the great songstresses of the 20th century, but she also takes on a role that won her sister, Jessie, a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical.

Clearly, it's a part the sisters were born to play, because Mueller more than meets any challenges in her fantastic, whole-hearted performance as Carole King. Her rich, golden singing calls to mind King's own distinct sound, while her skills as an actress bring authenticity to each scene and interaction. Mueller convincingly matures King through the years, from bubbly, enthusiastic student to teenage wife and mother to grown woman embracing her own voice and independence.

Liam Tobin likewise gives a strong performance as Goffin. He brings both charm and complexity to his portrayal, humanizing Goffin's best intentions and besetting flaws in a believable and compelling way. He has a lovely singing voice which well complements his acting style, making each of Goffin's lyrics feel personally connected to his portrayal.

Ben Fankhauser and Becky Gulsvig play King and Goffin's closest friends and friendly rivals, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Mann and Weil were a tour de force hit-making team in their own right, collaborating on such chart-topping hits as "He's Sure the Boy I Love," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Fankhauser and Gulsvig are outstanding singers and entirely winning in their roles. They capture the humor of their parts - the quick-witted, vibrant Weil is always ready with a sparkling comeback, while Mann is an endearingly neurotic hypochondriac - but for all of their characters' comedic appeal, Weil and Mann develop as well-rounded individuals. Gulsvig and Fankhauser well play the romance, the arguments and understandings, and the impressive breadth of the duo's writing talents in a humanizing and credible way.

Curt Bouril rounds out the musical family as the dry and quirky Don Kirshner, a brilliant producer/manager known as "The Man with the Golden Ear." Kirshner launched the careers of a host of musical stars, including (but not limited to) Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, Bobby Darin, Kansas, the Monkees, and the Archies. Beautiful taps into Kirshner as mentor to his songwriting quartet. Bouril has some very funny material to work with and he ably weaves that into a portrayal that depicts Kirshner as a sincere friend and a fair-minded and highly perceptive professional.

Each and every member of Beautiful's ensemble cast deserves a round of applause. These performers are skilled singers and top-notch dancers, Broadway-quality all, and to be commended for convincingly bringing the ground-breaking musical sounds of The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers, Neil Sedaka, Little Eva, and The Shirelles to life on stage.

Costumes by Alejo Vietti reflect the changing trends and mores of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, both in the day-to-day wear the songwriters don in the office and the glamourous gowns and slick suits adorning star musical acts performing on stage and television. Derek McLane's smart scenic design smooths over even the sharpest change in place or time; magically traveling furnishings transform from King's cozy living room to bright studio lights in an instant. Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design aids in the storytelling, whether capturing the tenor and mood of the characters' circumstances, highlighting crucial aspects of a scene, or adding a touch of pizazz to a pop artist's performance. Susan Draus' musical direction lets each number shine to its fullest extent, underscoring the timelessness and genius of each standard in the King/Goffin, Weil/Mann catalog.

Beautiful plays the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, September 20, 2015. Tickets can be purchased online at, by phone (401) 421-ARTS (2787), or by visiting the box office at 220 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI. Ticket prices range from $58-$98; group orders (20 or more) may be placed by calling (401) 574-3162.

Photo by Joan Marcus

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