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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Beautiful: the Carole King Musical

Review by Anthony Chase

two people share a dramatic look at a piano
Sean Ryan and Maria Pedro in "Beautiful"

Beautiful: the Carole King Musical is among the best of the juke box musicals.  That is to say, those shows that feature existing hit songs instead of original music. The production currently at MusicalFare is, itself, beautiful, with a strong cast, compelling visuals and choreography, and a first-rate leading lady. It is not surprising to read that the remainder of its run, which wraps up on March 24th, it’s “basically sold out.”


Nostalgia is at the heart of all juke box musicals.  There are nostalgic musicals that evoke an era using original music. Grease did it for the 1950s.  Hairspray did it for the 1960s.  (With its Castle Walk and Barbershop quartettes, in 1957, The Music Man arguably did it for 1912!)  But that’s not what’s happening here. 


And if you’ll allow me to nerd-out completely for a moment, let me mention that the genre was really pioneered in the 18th century. The most famous example is John Gay’s smash hit of 1728, The Beggar’s Opera, which introduced the story of Macheath, Polly Peachum, and Suky Tawdry with a score of current pop tunes.  That piece would be reworked, 200 years later, by Bertolt Brecht with an original score by Kurt Weill as The Threepenny Opera.  


The idea of the “juke box,” however, couldn’t happen until the later 20th century, after the invention of records, radio, and actual juke boxes.  Even within the juke box genre, there is a lot of variety. 


There are juke box musicals like Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages that use pop hits from one composer or era to tell an original story.  Moulin Rouge did this to retell that 19th century mega-hit, La Dame aux Camélias (or Camille) by Alexandre Dumas fils.


There are juke box musicals that celebrate the contributions of a particular song writer.  Shows like Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Eubie arguably rescued the legacies of Fats Waller and Eubie Blake. Smokey Joe’s Café focused on the work of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.


Then there are juke box musicals that use songs written or recorded by an individual to tell that person’s life story.  That brings us to shows Jersey Boys (the Frankie Valli story) and On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan story).  Beautiful: the Carole King Musical is in this category.


The MusicalFare production is headed by Maria Pedro as Carole King, and she’s delightful in every way.  Pedro has become one of MusicalFare’s go-to leading ladies of late. She sings brilliantly in King’s unmistakable style and lands all the delicious lines that the book by Douglas McGrath hands to her. She makes the transition from teenage King to middle-aged King with believability and a sort of even-handed nonchalance.


Biographical musicals often reduce real-life people to caricatures and gloss over their failings.  Sometimes you get a slim show but a fabulous concert: think the Donna Summer musical; the Cher musical; and MJ, the necessarily sanitized Michael Jackson show. By contrast, Beautiful gives us both a rollicking Carole King concert and the revealing tale about how a teenage girl from Brooklyn made her way to the legendary Brill Building on Broadway in Manhattan and became a music legend. Moreover, her story lacks the violent threat of, say, the Tina Turner story, allowing our heroine to seem very ordinary and humble, in short, like us.  The drama is in her meteoric career, made all the more amazing by the woman’s humble simplicity. Carole King is the girl next door, not that poor girl on Law and Order SVU.


Fortuitously for dramatic tension and as is often the case, the antagonist in the Carole King story turns out to be the man who was supposed to love her, her husband, Gerry Goffin. This is also the man with whom she wrote dozens of pop hits. The specific way their relationship disintegrated becomes the lynchpin of reality that enables Beautiful, which begins (like most juke box biographies) with a succession of famous people in caricature, to evolve into a complex revelation of Carole King herself. And just as we think we’ve reached the height, when she confronts Gerry, informing him that their daughters deserve better and that she deserves better too, her life goes on to top that moment. 


Indeed, King will top the heights of her collaboration with Gerry Goffin, decisively. 


It seems that, struggling with his own mental health and a slight, recurring, infidelity issue, Gerry decided that the problem was Carole. She was too uptight, and too old-fashioned.  He thought she was holding him back.


Carole had other ideas. She dumped Gerry and went on to record Tapestry, one of the most successful solo albums in history.  Tapestry would win four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year and would stay on the pop charts for the next six years. Far from being out-of-date, the Carole King persona defined the liberated woman of the 1970s.


That’s a huge story, and as originally presented on Broadway and on tour, Beautiful was a huge show. The intimacy of MusicalFare allows us to view the work through a different lens and in different proportions. The flashback to the teenage girl who pushes her mother off the piano bench so she can play her own new song becomes more prominent in this story of little David against the Goliath of the music industry and the patriarchy.  Pedro is entirely up to the task, to the point of making it look effortless, and presenting evolution of Carole King’s life as having a kind of inevitability. 


Sean Ryan is also splendid as cute but deplorable Gerry Goffin. His total self-absorption allows the man to justify his most appalling antics. Happily, in the King-Goffin saga, living well actually does turn out to be King’s best revenge, and icky Gerry’s ultimate comeuppance.  Ryan eats his humble pie most appealingly, to the point that when Ryan made his appearance in King’s Carnegie Hall dressing room in Act II, the older couple sitting next to me urgently began to whisper, “Too late! Too Late!”


Gretchen Didio and Josh Wilde (two more rising stars in the Buffalo theater pantheon) play songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the duo who wrote "On Broadway," "You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling," and "Uptown."  They are the requisite comic secondary leads. She is overpoweringly independent.  He is a hypochondriac.  Together they are a happy contrast to the couple that Carole and Gerry are not.  Didio and Wilde have a perfect sense of comedy and excellent chemistry between them. Their performances got me wondering when somebody will write that Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann juke box musical. 


Debbie Pappas Sham gives another vivid performance as Carole King’s conflicted and sometimes self-deceiving mother, Genie Klein. She also scored the required vaudevillian laughs as record producer Don Kirshner’s secretary, Lucille. John Kaczorowski is reliably funny and appealing as Kirshner, a role designed to advance the narrative with reliable laughter and charm.


Numerous other talented musical theater performers populate this show in a line-up of two-dimensional cameos. Lily Jones has a nice turn as singer Janelle Woods. Ember Tate is deployed adorably as babysitter-turned-recording-sensation Little Eva.  Brandon Barry plays Nick and one of the Righteous Brothers.  Jake Hayes is one of the Drifters. Derrian Brown is another of the Drifters. David P. Eve is a third Drifter. El Tyner is a fourth Drifter. Brett Jackson is Neil Sedaka and the other Righteous Brother. Tara Kaczorowski is Betty and Marilyn Wald. Janae Leonard is Timiyah Love and a Shirelle. Marc Sacco is Lou Adler, though I swear on the day I saw the show, he was also one of the Righteous Brothers – it’s a big cast, and I might have lost track. Let’s just say that everyone was splendid, spirited and committed in this excellent ensemble.


Expert music direction for this music-heavy show is provided by Theresa Quinn, who accomplishes a Herculean task. Robin Barker’s excellent period appropriate choreography is energetic, playful and keeps the show moving.


Dyan Burlingame has designed a set that evokes numerous settings while allowing this episodically structured show to fly through its transitions.  Kari Drozd’s sometimes whimsical costumes and wigs are uniformly good.


All of these elements in a tight and handsome production have been pulled together under director-producer Randall Kramer. 


Since virtually no tickets are available, this review might be as close as you are going to get to the show.  If you have already snagged a ticket, I hope I will have enhanced your experience. A case of flu delayed my getting up to MusicalFare, so if you’ve already seen the show, I hope I have helped you savor your memory of a wonderful musical theater experience. 




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