Wednesday, December 02, 2015

One Fine Musical Carole: 'Beautiful' Weaves Some Kind of Wonderfully Tuneful Tapestry -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
Oriental Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 21

Even for those of us who wholeheartedly love musical theater, it's easy to be wary, even cynical, about idioms that are overdone and all too often underwhelming.

Although Broadway musicals featuring pre-existing songs of a popular artist or genre have long predated the 21st century--such as those celebrating George Gershwin, Fats Waller or Buddy Holly--as have musicals adapted from popular movies, both varieties have become ubiquitous in the new millennium. (See Wikipedia entries for Jukebox Musical and Musicals Based on Films)

And as with any art form that becomes over saturated, and exacerbated by mercenary motives, the quality of jukebox (or songbook) and screen-to-stage musicals has widely varied, with a proliferation of bad examples prompting thoughts of "Enough already!"

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
But in recent days and weeks, I've written @@@@1/2 reviews of two of the best jukebox musicals--Million Dollar Quartet and Mamma Mia!--while also citing a third that stands as a prime paragon: Jersey Boys.

Earlier this year, I also heaped high praise on the pre-Broadway Chicago production of On Your Feet!, the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical, which served to remind that shows of any ilk or type can rise above the repetitive, derivative din if created with enough quality, distinction and panache.

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical reiterates this.

Based on the national tour's first night in Chicago, Beautiful isn't merely a crowd-pleasing affair--as many jukebox musicals are due simply to a plethora of beloved songs--but a classy, well conceived, crafted, paced and performed piece of musical theater. 

Even in keeping its scope to roughly 1958-1971, the show's book by Douglas McGrath--seemingly created with King's awareness and tacit approval but not direct involvement--doesn't delve super deep into the artist's life, and is somewhat cursory in broaching the marital discord that developed between, and ultimately split both personally and professionally, King and her husband/songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin. 

Nor is there much acute exploration of her, and their, brilliant songwriting craft and inspiration, such as that which made the recent Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, particularly good.

And while there is certainly compelling universality inherent in pursuing one's dreams amid long odds & parental skepticism, as well as matters of love, romance, friendship, motherhood, womanhood, collaboration, competition, success, relationship issues, betrayal, heartbreak, change, apprehension, resolve, triumph, success, etc., etc., based on my first viewing I don't believe Beautiful quite matches the metaphorical depth with which Jersey Boys so adroitly uses the story of the Four Seasons to reflect broader, more communal themes while portraying a bygone time & place. 

But under Marc Bruni's direction, with splendid-yet-relatively-sparse scenic design by Derek McLane, not only is Beautiful a joy to behold over its entire 2-1/2 hours, it serves to illuminate the rather remarkable rise, success and songs of King & Goffin (and then King alone) with considerable verve and a fair amount of emotional depth.

I found it considerably better than Motown: The Musical, another highly successful, still-running-on-Broadway
jukebox musical chock full of phenomenal songs (but a flimsy book).

This show is wonderfully staged, including in the way it introduces modern-day audiences to the concept of New York songwriting "factories" such as the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway, where King & Goffin and other legendary composer/lyricist teams (or solo songsmiths) wrote tunes largely for other acts to perform.

Aside from Carole King (Abby Mueller) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), the two most prominent characters in Beautiful are Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), another famed pair of married songwriters--as opposed to King & Goffin, she writes the lyrics and he the music--who forge a close friendship with the central couple, but also a professional rivalry.

In a show subtitled "The Carole King Musical," I was rather surprised by just how many Mann/Weil songs are prominently included. 

Amplified by superb replications of The Drifters, Shirelles, Little Eva and others who performed songs by one or both songwriting duos, this tack allows Beautiful to expand beyond being simply a Carole-centric biography while facilitating an even more astonishing cavalcade of hits. 

Because being surprised by the surplus of classics is part of the fun, not only won't I divulge many, I suggest you don't look at the song list in the program ahead of time. But Wikipedia can give you a sense of the quality and quantity of hits penned by King/Goffin and Mann/Weil, and if not well-versed in King's mammoth-selling 1971 Tapestry album, a bit of Spotifamiliarization is in order. 

Adding a unique wrinkle to an excellent touring version of a buzzworthy Broadway smash musical that actually merits the hype, is that as Carole King, Abby Mueller stars in the same role her sister Jessie Mueller originated--and won a Best Actress Tony Award for--on Broadway. 

Especially as the Mueller family is from Evanston, I find this rather neat.

I didn't get a chance to see Jessie in Beautiful on Broadway, but this past March I attended a Sarah Siddons Society Gala at the Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire, where Jessie was honored and--along with Abby and their likewise talented brothers, Matt and Andrew--performed.

So I've heard Jessie Mueller sing some Beautiful songs, quite phenomenally, but onstage at the splendiferous Oriental Theatre, Abby Mueller was outstanding in her own right.

From what I'd seen & heard at the benefit show, this wasn't a huge surprise, but it was "Some Kind of Wonderful" to note how good Abby sounded on "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "You've Got a Friend" and other classic Carole King material.

Understandably, and non-detractingly, the narrative does some chronological cheating--Mann & Weil were wed much earlier in real-life than in the show's timeline--while also creating a composite character, taking a few creative liberties, etc., to make it all work, including enabling songs to be sung by an array of characters. (You may find this interview with Carole King by the Tribune's Chris Jones rather interesting along these lines.)

But work it does.


Sure, A Christmas Carol is again playing at the Goodman Theatre just around the corner from the Oriental, but this holiday season--or well into February, if not again extended--another Carole should well make for "One Fine Day" in Chicago.

Or, of course, a Beautiful evening.

And, as opposed to many enjoyable but not indelible jukebox musicals, you should still love it tomorrow.  

1 comment:

Ken said...

I think for many of us aging baby boomers Tapestry was a defining musical moment for female singer/ songwriters during those late sixties, early seventies. It's a sweet musical reminiscence of a bygone era. I remember those days as A Musical Feaat.