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Beautiful (in some ways): The Carole King Musical

by | Jun 17, 2023 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Daniel Curalli and Kaylee Harwood on Cory Sincennes’s set (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

There are so many great songs in this show. And there’s so much talent on the Arts Club stage. But there’s so little story in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical that it often feels more like a concert than theatre.

Douglas McGrath’s slim book follows the legendary singer/songwriter from 1958, when she was 16 and sold her first song, to 1971 and the Carnegie Hall concert that followed the release of her smash-hit album Tapestry. The personal story is about King’s troubled marriage to her song-writing partner, lyricist Gerry Goffin, who had bipolar disorder. In this musical, as it did in life, this marriage serves up a bunch of hits, including “Take Good Care of My Baby”, “The Loco-Motion”, and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. King and Goffin’s pals, song-writing team Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, are also part of the story, which allows Beautiful to share their hits too, including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”.

It’s a phenomenal song list. And it’s huge. There are 17 musical numbers in Act 1, and 11 in Act 2. Because there’s so little time left for storytelling, in the first act, the characters feel like figures in a rudimentary video game, mere types with limited functions. King’s mom Genie is a bitter divorcée. King is gifted and self-effacing. Her pal Cynthia is a wisecracker.

Interpersonal conflict is minimal and career success comes so easily that nobody needs to work very hard, which means there’s no narrative depth. When King’s marriage to Goffin falls apart in Act 2, it’s predictable, but at least there’s struggle, so the characters start to look more like human beings.

Okay. That’s what’s wrong with the material. Under Ashlie Corcoran’s direction, there’s a whole lot right with this production.

Let’s start with the set by Cory Sincennes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a deluxe design on the Stanley stage. Sincennes gives us a proscenium arch and towering internal walls that seem to be made of gilded wooden tiles — inspired, it seems, by the interiors of hit factories’ offices in the late fifties and early sixties. And there’s a screen that drops down — tiles again, but geometrically patterned and in wood tones. The richness of this container emphasizes the humble nature of the domestic spaces, which appear on a revolve.

Stephanie Kong also hits the mark with her costumes. The ivory, orange, and brown palette in which she clothes Cynthia is particularly on-point, and all of Cynthia’s outfits are sexily trim and tailored.

Let’s talk about the acting. Kaylee Harwood, who’s playing King, is a phenomenon. With her assured voice and passionate interpretations, she fills the musical numbers, which is no mean feat. And, as an actor, she works the scenes, bringing more emotional depth to them than you’d think the text would allow.

I love that there are people in the world who are as talented as Daniel Curalli (Gerry) is. I was blown away by Curalli’s comic chops and musical-theatre talent when I saw him in Something Rotten! at Theatre Under the Stars last summer and now here he is doing something completely different equally well. His musical skills still shining, he brings impressive vulnerability to the tragedy of Gerry’s struggle.

The talent keeps coming. Daniela Fernandez gets everything there is to get out of Cynthia’s wit, and Kamyar Pazandeh is freshly funny as Cynthia’s hypochondriacal partner Barry.

An odd thing about Beautiful is that it showcases so many performers. Because lots of the songs are sung by actors impersonating the groups and characters who recorded them (The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva), but to whom we have no narrative attachment, their dramatic impact is diluted. On the upside, this approach means we get to see an unusual amount of skill in supporting roles. I loved all of The Drifters and The Shirelles, but I particularly want to shout out Andrew J. Hampton of The Drifters and Ali Watson of The Shirelles — Watson also plays Little Eva — for their impressive pipes and charm.

And the choreography in this production! The movement, which was set by Julie Tomaino, is full of eccentric hesitations and cool glides, and it is unbelievably slickly performed.

Before I stop, I want to tell you about one more thing that moved me. I love it when audiences invest in characters. The night I saw Beautiful, that happened big time with King. She is, for a time, an emotionally abused woman. But when she started to assert herself, the audience was so with her. It felt great.

For me, Beautiful’s narrative slightness is a significant problem. It meant I got bored in Act 1. But, in this production, there’s a lot to love.

BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Book by Douglas McGrath. Words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. On Friday, June 16. An Arts Club Theater production running at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until August 6. Tickets and info

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