Theatre in Review

Friday, 08 December 2017 17:32

Beautiful: The Story of a Natural Woman

While I’d yet to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical since it premiered to much acclaim (and a U.S. tour) a couple years ago, I entered the Cadillac Palace Theatre for its latest Chicago debut a lifelong Carole King fanboy. I knew her songs. I knew her story. But for a couple hours on Wednesday night, the cast of this latest touring production made me feel like I knew her.

But first, those songs. The audience, young and old, knew them all. The older ones, the ones who’d been there the first time around, giggled with nostalgia. And the rest of us – who know them from parents, from oldies radio, from YouTube, from simply being alive – were every bit as thrilled. From John Michael Dias’ mugging Neil Sedaka singing “Oh Carol” on national TV to his former high school flame, Carole Klein, to the ensemble’s medley of Brill Building tunes love-potioning and splish-splashing and yakkity-yakking, we were all Boomer kids taken back to a not-simpler time.

The real standouts of this jukebox time machine were two vocal quartets. Playing the parts of The Shirelles, Little Eva and her backing singers, and Janelle Woods and her own group, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Traci Elaine Lee, Marla Louissaint, and Alexis Tidwell were magic as they brought classic takes on King’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day.” The dresses, the elegant moves, the wedding chapel harmonies, and those songs. Wow. They were only equaled by their male counterparts – Josh Dawson, Jay McKenzie, Avery Smith, and Kristopher Stanley Ward – whose coiffed hairdos, satin suits, and smooth moves as The Drifters made it look so easy as they doo-wopped and stepped to “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof.” But Ms. King’s songs weren’t the only ones on display. While The Drifters did a nifty walk down Weil and Mann’s “On Broadway,” the rival songwriting duo’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was retaken from Tom Cruise’s boozy Top Gun barroom ballad by Matt Faucher and Dias again as The Righteous Brothers. Faucher’s baritone filled the Cadillac, and Dias’ high harmonies brought it home. Again, wow. Wish I’d been there the first time around, but this cast showed off their chops while paying quite a tribute to the classic songs and their songwriters who the story’s about.

And about that story. Again, as a fan, I knew the outline: NYC kids slave away in a Times Square hit-making sweatshop, soundtrack a generation, and one of them makes it big herself later on. But the main cast fleshed out the story’s characters. They took them from characters to people. James Clow’s gum-chewing, contract-signing Don Kushner was intimidating but encouraging. Sarah Goecke’s witty, Cole-Porter-wannabe wordsmith, Cynthia Weil, was a woman ahead of her time. Jacob Heimer’s neurotic lady’s man, Barry Mann, made you root for him. And Andrew Brewer’s smoldering but sensitive Gerry Goffin made you swoon, even as you knew the dirty dog was sneaking around on his Carole.

And Carole. Oh, Carole. As Neil Sedaka sang, “there will never be another.” And throughout the show, lead Sarah Bockel not only proved Sedaka right, giving us Carole King’s look and playing and voice, she gave us Carole Klein, the person. Many talented performers could probably approximate King’s hair or her vocals. But Bockel went beyond that, giving us the perky and precocious 16-year-old writing those hits and falling for that hunk. She gave us the broken but devoted young mother finding out not just who she’s married to – Bockel and Brewer’s chemistry was very sweet and seemed very real – but who she herself is. And she gave us that self, finally confident to write her own words, to tell her own story, to sing it loud, for a crowd, for us. And that story, of a woman claiming her soul from the lost and found and using it to give voice to not just a generation, but many generations to come, was what wowed the Cadillac’s crowd the most. The voices will make you applaud. The songs will make you nostalgic. But the story this cast and their show tell of this natural woman, this national treasure, will make you feel. It made me feel.

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Published in Theatre in Review

Everyone's mom has a copy of "Tapestry," and by now the songs are almost as familiar as the Star Bangled Banner. What many may not know is that composer Carole King and lyricist Gerry Goffin literally shaped the sound of early rock 'n roll with their songs made popular by The Drifters, The Shirelles and Little Eva. 


"Beautiful" is a musical based on Carole King's incredible rise in the music business as a teenager. While the show is a fairly succinct tale, it does neglect that Miss King ran in the same circles as many other music heavy weights such as Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. Impressive even still is that she sold her first hit song when she was sixteen years old. In an age when many careers were off limits to women. 


Douglas McGrath's book is charming and witty. It begins with Carole (Abby Mueller) playing "So Far Away," at a piano, her long frizzy hair moves along with King's signature playing mannerisms. From there it revolves back in time to a less sure of herself King, telling her story through her own songs. McGrath's book has a sincerity not often found these days in blockbuster Broadway shows. He provides heartbreaking context for all the well-known hits written by not just King and Goffin, but also their close friends and competition, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. 


The numbers are somewhat formulaic in their presentation, moving from real life story to full-scale performances (as they would have appeared on American Band Stand) but the songs are incredibly well sung and choreographed by the ensemble. It's nearly impossible not to sing along under your breath, or in full-voice as some audience members were. Mcgrath and director Marc Bruni have struck a perfect balance that both tickles and leaves the audience feeling an emotional attachment to the characters, so that in the end, "Beautiful" isn't just about Carole King and it's also not just about the music industry. 


Local actress Abby Mueller does an impeccable job filling the shoes of Carole King. If you close your eyes, you wouldn't know you're not actually listening to "Tapestry." Mueller's performance pushes past the gimmick of imitation. She connects to the audience and makes the familiar story of a bad marriage very real. When she turns from frumpy housewife into the bohemian California-chic (the Tapestry look) it feels very cathartic, which makes her success as a solo singer all the more triumphant. 


Through February 21st at The Oriental Theatre. Broadway in Chicago. 800-775-2000


Published in Theatre Reviews



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