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Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at The Paramount Theatre

The Bio-Musical that gets it right.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Sara Sheperd as "Carole King" in
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Paramount.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Jukebox musicals are a mainstay of the American Musical Theater. They have recognizable hit songs built in and instant appeal for fans. But they're difficult to get right, needing a good book to incorporate the songs into a cohesive story. Even more difficult is the jukebox bio-musical where they're trying to tell the story of the artist's life with their own songs. There are so many out there, "Tina", "MJ", "Motown", "Jersey Boys" to name just a few. And their pitfall is typically twofold and both require the show to have a good editor. First, the book isn't strong or interesting enough. And second, and most importantly, they try to cram too many songs from the artist's songbook into the show, to the point that there's no time for full numbers, just snippets of the songs. If we've come to see the show, chances are we're already a fan of the music, so we want to hear the songs. The whole song. But in these instances, once they get you excited about hearing a certain song, they've already moved onto another one. Then along came "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical", currently playing for a short run at the Paramount Theatre. This is that rare unicorn of a show that manages to get it right on all points leaving the audience not only more knowledgeable about their favorite performer's life but also having been satisfyingly treated with said performer's songbook, in this case, the legendary Carole King (played with oodles of heart by Sara Sheperd).

If you think you don't know King's songs, you're probably wrong. Even before she proved herself to be an amazing performer and recording artist, she was a quite prolific hit songwriter churning out hit after hit with her husband and writing partner, Gerry Goffin (played by the velvet voiced James D. Gish), for artists like The Shirelles, The Drifters, and Janelle Woods with hits like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", "Up on the Roof", and "One Fine Day". Starting out selling her songs at just 16 years old she and Goffin quickly proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And their drive in no small part was due to their rivalry with their best friends and fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (played by the hilariously adorable Sara King and Ryan Farnsworth) who penned such hits as "On Broadway" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Felling". And it's this rivalry and friendship, along with King's rocky marriage and career to superstardom that makes this story so engaging.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Torrey Linder, Edwin Bates, Ben Toomer,
and Isaiah Bailey as "The Drifters" in
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Paramount.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

With Doug McGrath's outstanding book, we not only manage to hit the high points of King's life and stay on a perfect pace with direction from Marc Bruni, but they manage to incorporate the songs in such a way that they're more than a list. Unlike other bio-musicals that rely on the trope of "and then we sang this song, and then we sang that song", "Beautiful" manages to relate each song to a pivotal moment in their lives and creating a (pardon the obvious pun) beautiful touchstone to the emotion behind the lyrics in connection to the events surrounding its creation. Certainly not an easy feat but McGrath and Bruni seem to pull it off with ease.

Another thing going for the show is the variety of voices within. Most bio-musicals are stuck with one group or performer singing the majority of the hits but here, since we're dealing with songwriters, we also get incredible performances from others playing these other legendary groups. Torrey Linder, Jacquez Linder-Long, Julian Malone, and Ben Toomer make for wonderful Drifters with their voices and iconic moves well represented. Similarly, Rosharra Francis, Jamary A. Gil, Danielle Herbert, and Nazarria Workman offer up some fantastic numbers as the Shirelles with Francis coming back later as Janelle Woods for "One Fine Day". But my personal favorite moment would have to go to Nick Moulton and Paul Scanlan giving a stunning rendition of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" as the Righteous Brothers. Kudos to both, but especially to Scanlan who sultry, deep voice gave me chills from the moment he opened his mouth.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Matt Loehr, James D. Gish, Sara Sheperd,
Ryan Farnsworth and Sara King in
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Paramount.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus

But this show is about King and her life and Sheperd is completely up to the task to carry us through it. Her presence makes her instantly likable and relatable, and she gives us a fabulous arc as we watch the highs and lows of King's world. Plus, her vocals are absolutely on point making each number a gift that builds upon the last one. So, by the end of the show, we're completely in the palm of her hand. Gish, as her wandering husband, manages to convey this troubled man with sympathy and heart, and again, his vocals will make you swoon. King and Farnsworth could not be more lovable as the rival songwriters with their on again/off again relationship and Mann's "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" was a total showstopper. And I must mention Rachel Coloff as King's mother Genie Klein and Matt Loehr as the group's producer Don Kirshner who brought in a ton of wonderful comic relief without ever being over the top or mugging.

"Beautiful" is simply a rocking good time from beginning to end and one of the few bio-musicals to get it absolutely right. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" at the Paramount a Beautiful YAY+. And with the show only here for a few more performances, you should rush out to catch it.

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" performs at the Paramount through April 9th. For tickets or information visit Seattle Theatre Group online at www.stgpresents.org.



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