Monday, January 27, 2014

REVIEW: Beautiful

Review of the Sunday, January 26 matinee performance at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in New York City.  Starring Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, Jeb Brown and Liz Larsen.  Music and lyrics by Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.  Book by Douglas McGrath.  Choreography by Josh Rhodes.  Direction by Marc Bruni.  2 hours, 25 minutes, including one intermission.

Grade: C

WARNING: This review contains plot spoilers.

Carole King, it has been reported, has no plans to see the story of her life on the Broadway stage.  If, in fact, she's doing it because it's just "too personal," she needn't worry - it never gets too deep.  But if she wants to avoid the show because she wants to avoid being embarrassed, I totally support her.  Douglas McGrath's banal, boring book - a cross between a sit-com, and a weak Behind-the-Music documentary - shoe-horns in all the facts, but so little of the emotion and real influences of her life.  It reduces the life of one of America's greatest composer-lyricists to a live Wikipedia article.  He mentions, for example, that Ms. King skipped two grades in high school, three times in the first ten minutes of the show.  What does it say about a musical when the height of tension in the whole thing revolves around an abruptly ended game of strip poker followed by a "no" at an awkward marriage proposal?  The lone time, and I do mean the lone time, McGrath shows us instead of tells us anything is when Gerry Goffin inexplicably begins to stutter uncontrollably, and the result is an ever so brief glimpse at what Beautiful: The Carole King Musical might have been.

The Beautiful Company
Another "might have been" comes from the spectacular montage sequence called "1650 Broadway Medley," where we get to see the inner workings of that venerable music factory at its prime.  A hit parade of songs is cobbled together, while we see the beehive of activity at work around Derek McLane's serviceable, if uninspiring unit set. It is clever, exciting to watch, and, sadly the most interesting scene directed by Marc Bruni.  To be fair, it is amazing that he has gotten as much out of the show as he has.  The rest is a slick, clean staging - so slick as to be repetitive and, well, boring after awhile. But that has more to do with the material as written, I think, than a lack of ability.

That is not to say that the show is without its charms, some of them considerable.  Technically, Alejo Vietti's numerous costumes and Charles G. LaPointe's bounty of period wigs are top notch, as is Peter Kaczorowski's delightfully old school lighting - not an overwrought, garish projection screen in sight - which fits the numerous locations of the story and highlights the performance scenes perfectly.  I should also mention that Brian Ronan's sound design is flawless.  The choreography supplied by Josh Rhodes is high quality, full of energy and evocative of the period.  The numbers by "The Drifters" and "The Shirelles" are especially fun; I loved watching them change formations and effortlessly glide through smooth move after  move.  "On Broadway" and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" were definite highlights.

"The Shirelles"
One of the chief delights here is the principal cast.  While her role is a sorry cliche of the bitter divorcee and Brooklyn housewife, Liz Larsen makes the most of her role as Carole's long-suffering mother.  Jeb Brown is also amusing as the I-want-to-be-tough-but-can't-really-hide-my-heart-of-gold record producer, Don Kirschner.  The central four characters, though, manage to almost effortlessly - almost - elevate the material they are trying to sell.  As written, they are the classic I Love Lucy set up, with the"Fred and Ethel" of Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen (as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil) playing partners-in-crime to the "Lucy and Ricky" of Jessie Mueller and Jake Epstein (as Carole King and Gerry Goffin).  Spector is quite funny and has a wonderful voice, even as he suffers through a one-note characterization (we get it, Mann was a hypochondriac).  Of equally good voice and a constant source of energy every time she hits the stage, Larsen shines as sometimes feminist, fiercely loyal Weil.  As the tormented ladies' man Goffin, Epstein is given the most to chew on here, and he does so with sex appeal and compelling angst.  That his character provides the most dramatic interest speaks volumes about the book of a show that isn't really about him.

Brown, Epstein, Mueller, Spector and larsen

(Top) Jessie Mueller and Jake Epstein 
(Bottom) Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen
Everything that has already been said about Ms. Mueller's performance is true.  She carries the show with her effortless portrayal and dynamite vocals, not so much mimicking King, but rather approximating the legend.  When Mueller is on stage, you can't take your eyes off of her, and when she sings, it is near bliss.  Her rendition of "Natural Woman" alone is worth sitting through the rest of the show, and the title song, "Beautiful," is sung with so much feeling, you can almost forgive the rest of the show's faults.

Jessie Mueller
Beautiful will likely be the show that the wives of the men who loved Jersey Boys will flock to in the foreseeable future, and they were lapping it up like cream at the performance I attended, oohing and ahhing as they recognized each classic tune, and happily sang along to many of them - man, that annoys me - and applauding many numbers and "acts" like we were at a concert rather than a Broadway show.  ("The Righteous Brothers" got such a hand, you'd have thought the real duo was making a surprise guest appearance or something!)  Still, it is hard not to be that enthusiastic, for the music here is the best part of the whole thing.  Looking back on it, it is amazing just how much those four songwriters changed and added to American popular music.  It is true: they sure don't write 'em like that anymore.

I guess what is so annoying about this latest bio-jukebox musical is the untapped potential.  Carole King deserves much more.  It isn't nearly as bad as Motown, and it is epic theatre compared to the insultingly bad Baby It's You!  But it is a definite reminder that enough is enough of such "musicals."

Photos by Joan Marcus



  1. A few weeks removed from the show, I can see most of your points. Where I must disagree with you is on the subject of McClane's set, which manages to advance both the characters and the plot. The cubicles and skeletal structure of the Brill Building hover in the background of nearly every scene -- including the ski resort (where the characters go to get away from it) and the Goffin's suburban New Jersey home. It's an ever-present reminder that Carole's struggle to have a normal life, one separate from the music business, is doomed to failure: the Brill building is an integral part of the framework of King's suburban fantasy. Yes, it's inevitable that Gerry will explode and storm off to have another affair, but it's also cunningly telegraphed by Bruni: Right before he races back to the city, Gerry moves upstage and leans against one of the poles that support the upper floor of offices. In my experience, it's rare to see a set used as a dramatic tool rather than just ornamental decoration.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment! We'll have to agree to disagree on this, though I can understand your interpretation.


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