Beautiful – The Carole King Musical: Stephen Sondheim Theatre NYC

Disproving the theory that there are no second acts in America, Beautiful artfully unfolds the story of Carole King.

King went from unknown success writing hit songs for other singers to recording the biggest selling album of all time, and then settled into comfortable relative obscurity. The Broadway production of Beautiful is sterling, and road show versions are taking the show around the country.

Even if the show was not so compelling, it is a great way to see how songs were written and recorded back in the day, when the writer and composer and performer were three different entities.  In the pre-Beatles, pre-Dylan era portrayed in the first third of the play we see very effectively the factory method evident in New York city in the Brill Building and at 1650 Broadway with Don Kirshner. (Berry Gordy claims he studied Detroit’s auto plants when he built Motown, but these song factories were undoubtedly instructive).

The segues from King and eventual ex-husband Gerry Goffin on piano to the radio success of those songs by The Drifters, The Shirelles and Little Eva is compelling.

I wonder why the producers rejected the relatively obvious idea of showing the transition of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” from its original ballad duet to a clip from the Monkees TV show. It would have been a logical echo of the very first scene when King bets her Mom the songs on American Bandstand are worse than King’s.

Chilina Kennedy channels Carole King uncannily. Kennedy absolutely inhabits the lead role, making me curious how the road show versions measure up. From the several times I have seen King in concert, and certainly from the essential American Masters documentary about King on PBS, I found Kennedy’s performance stunning.

Chilina Kennedy as Carole King in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater (c)Joan Marcus

Chilina Kennedy as Carole King in Beautiful – The Carole King Musical on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theater (c)Joan Marcus

After her success co-writing myriad chart topping hits and her separation from Goffin, King moved to California and ushered in the era of the singer songwriter. There were similar artists before her, but none before (and few after) reached the unexpected apogee of her “Tapestry” album. For years after its release it was the biggest selling album of all time.

Beautiful does an excellent job of portraying King’s initial reluctance and ultimate embrace of performing her own material.

Scott J. Campbell’s role as Gerry Goffin is impressive. Campbell has the difficult role of eliciting both sympathy for Goffin’s undeniable talent and contempt for Goffin’s lack of respect for King.

The inclusion of the Cynthia Weil – Barry Mann relationship serves several purposes. Not only are their best songs added to the already impressive song list, the arc of their relationship affords a contrast to the main couple’s struggle in maintaining fidelity and chart topping success.

Scott J Campbell Ben Jacoby Jessica Keenan Wynn Chilina Kennedy (c)Zachary Maxwell Sterz

Scott J Campbell, Ben Jacoby, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Chilina Kennedy (c)Zachary Maxwell Sterz

Marc Bruni directs with efficiency, handling well the compression of the decades in Douglas McGrath’s book. The costumes adroitly track the evolution of the staid late ’50s through the groovy early ’70s.

This is a musical that can and should be enjoyed by parents and their kids, as it reveals so much about the creation of lasting music and the resilience of one of America’s songwriting treasures.

 

 

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment and technology scene for many years. He has written for Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and once upon a time won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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