Oftentimes, the genius behind the curtain is not always the image that is represented. Songwriters, while known in their own domain, don’t always get the credit from the public that they deserve. It is the pop or rock star who does, many of which have never written their own songs, but are integral to the process just the same.
Carole King was fortunate enough to cement her legend as both a songwriter/composer and performer. She was and continues to be a one-of-a-kind figure in the ultra competitive music business, having rose gracefully to the top of her profession, keeping her friends and family close to her.
In the biographical touring production of “Beautiful,” another Mueller has embraced the eponymous role, this time Abby, sister of Jessie – who won a Tony Award for the same show on Broadway. Abby certainly brings something different but equally valuable to the role – an impassioned and strength-holding innocence to Carole. The audience fervently roots for Abby’s portrayal, never once feeling pity for her, because ultimately, her courageous intent to succeed never dissipates even when she does everything in her power to save her marriage to Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin). That is, until she justifiably and calmly refuses to give her husband any more chances to make things right.
As confirmed by the lens of history, Goffin is Carole’s professional partner in crime, both of whom are competitively pitted against another prolific song-writing couple, Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser). The two couples’ ideas are at the authoritative behest of music mogul Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), who, over time – once Goffin and King break No. 1 ground with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” – becomes as much a confidant, rather than just overseer, to the four creative minds.
Bouril does a fantastic job as the music honcho that is both capitalistic and kind-hearted, giving credit where credit is due, and not standing in the way of creativity. Fankhauser as Mann is riotous as the hypochondriac genius, delivering his lines with impeccable comic timing when referencing aversion to pet dander, frost bite, and his myriad doctor appointments. There is one moment in particular when Fankhauser, as Mann, verbalizes how depressed he is with Weil (Gulsvig), and how despondent he is without her, before arriving at the conclusion that he might as well be with her to reap the benefits of physical intimacy.
Gulsvig embodies Weil with an ambitiousness and quirkiness that is inspiring and warm. From the moment her twangy perseverance comes through when she gets Kirshner’s attention to when, by the end of the production, she agrees to marry Mann in a mutually-assured marriage of risible anxiety, there is never a dull moment with her.
Yet, Carole King’s story is driven by her relationship to bipolar husband Gerry Goffin, who, despite providing the lyrics to King’s melodies on countless hits, and fathering two daughters, is reluctant to wholly commit to a life of family. The manner in which Tobin plays Goffin is on point, appropriately flashing moments of musical brilliance, but somehow off-kiltered by a simmering disappointment affixed to the perception that his life is missing spontaneity and excitement.
Although the narrative of “Beautiful” focuses on the odyssey of songwriters and the actors playing them, they aren’t the only standouts; undoubtedly, the singers (and the individuals depicting them) make much of the material work, too. For example, the versatile John Michael Dias, who portrays not only Neil Sedaka, but a Righteous Brother (along with the talented Andrew Brewer), and record producer Lou Adler, is memorable for a different reason each time. As the Righteous Brothers, he and Brewer are compellingly suave in “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.”
Furthermore, Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Jay McKenzie and Noah J. Ricketts, as The Drifters, are resplendently charismatic, especially in “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “On Broadway.” Their female counterparts, Ashley Blanchet, Britney Coleman, Salisha Thomas, and Rebecca E. Covington, as The Shirelles, are classy and harmonious in “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Covington as Janelle Woods, an attractive solo star in the making, shines in “One Fine Day.”
The story, however, begins and ends with Carole King. With her strong and resolute mother, Genie Klein, who hysterically insists on having the last word (played heartwarmingly by Suzanne Grodner), King not only becomes a renowned composer, but thoroughly finds her own individuality in Los Angeles where she popularizes songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Beautiful.” Through it all, she is impelled by an empowered presence that Abby Mueller adeptly and rightly gives her.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs through July 17th at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood.
The book is by Douglas McGrath, it is choreographed by Josh Prince, and it’s directed by Marc Bruni.
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