The Tony Award®-winning hit, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical arrived at the Durham Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Sept. 23rd, amid much hype and anticipation — and it was worth the wait and then some! DPAC‘s SunTrust Broadway Series) is touted throughout the theater community, and DPAC justly proud of the shows that it has garnered for this year’s season, but there may not be a show that is as enjoyable, smashingly staged, or as toe-tappingly tender as this one.
Opening to sell-out crowds, the show, based on the life and music of Grammy Award® winner Carole King, has broken every box office record since opening in 2014 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in King’s native New York City. The musical that King herself called “a gift” has many famous fans, and the Triangle can now count itself among the appreciative audiences that are enamored by the first North American Tour of Beautiful.
The story concentrates on King’s entrée into the world of songwriting, from her days in Brooklyn as a passionate teen named Carol Klein, who dreamt of breaking into the world of music, to the early years in the business when she and her husband, Gerry Goffin, partnered to create some of the best known hits from the 1960s. The book, written by Tony and Academy Award® nominee Douglas McGrath, seamlessly interweaves moments in King’s life with the hits that she and Goffin produced, as well as those written by her friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
Directed by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Josh Prince, the show is energetic and upbeat but not saccharine. Instead, it’s a positive and sensitive look at the life of one of America’s living musical legends.
Beginning with a piano rendition of Carole King’s hit, “So Far Away,” her character, played stunningly by Abby Mueller, confesses that “[S]ometimes life goes well and sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t matter because sometimes you find something beautiful.” That simple life lesson resonates throughout the musical, and appears to be the philosophy by which King has lived, a philosophy that brought her not only to stardom but also through heartbreak.
Carole’s mother, Genie Klein, a struggling single mother and playwright, is played with a sense of humor and panache by Suzanne Grodner, a veteran of Broadway and Off Broadway, as well as television and motion pictures. Though Genie supports her daughter, she also knows the difficulty of living as a creative person; and because she’s been there herself, she’s both Carole’s greatest supporter as well as her protector.
Genie tells her daughter to “sell the song” and wishes her luck when Carole heads off to the city to meet with Donnie Kirshner (played larger than life by Curt Bouril). It is 1962, the time when pop/rock music controls the charts.
Kirshner, a legend in the business and the producer of scores of hits during the 1960s, was a force to be reckoned with until his death in 2011. He signs King immediately and her “Might As Well Rain Until September” becomes a hit for singer Bobby Vee. The 16-year-old King has her first bonafide job as a songwriter; and not long after, she meets Gerry Goffin, played with a lovable gruffness by Liam Tobin. The two native New Yorkers collaborate in more than one way: Goffin produces lyrics for her music, and soon they are also preparing to welcome a child into the world, so they marry.
The stage backdrop works on several levels, imitating the Brill Building, where the music of Donnie Kirshner’s stable of writers is created, as well as morphing into stages for the hitmakers themselves: The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva, the Righteous Brothers, and others. The set itself is a star of the show, bringing audience members into King’s homes, her workspace, and the stages where the hits of the 1960s were danced and sung with precision. It’s the soundtrack of a generation, and the music sets heads bopping and toes tapping, whether listeners fell in love to the music or are just hearing it for the first time.
Carole King’s hits punctuate the moments in her life and her partnership with her husband, as well as her friendship with fellow hitmakers Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (played by Ben Fankhauser and Becky Gulsvig). Gulsvig’s voice is as strong and distinctive as Mueller’s, and her personality comes across as a combination of tough New Yorker and musician-socialite. Her comedic timing is perfectly matched with Fankhauser’s; and when they (Mann/Weil) finally decide to tie the knot, audience members are joyfully appreciative.
Though hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” and “Natural Woman” are recognizable to most generations, the story behind the songs underlines the emotion with which they were written and that depth reminds us that these two songwriting teams might have been making their living writing the hits, but their lives were often the inspiration behind the music.
When King’s marriage starts hitting the rocks, the teenager from Brooklyn is forced to become a strong woman and for the first time, she sings her own songs. She transforms from a supportive wife and dedicated songwriter to a single woman with depth and passion, determined to continue the career into which she poured her heart and soul. Abby Mueller’s most stirring performance is singing “Natural Woman,” a song she did not believe she’d be able to record because it spoke to the connection she had with the man she adored, her husband. Goffin’s slide into mental illness and his infidelity are sensitively portrayed by Liam Tobin; and though we sympathize with Carole King’s heartbreak, it is clear that Goffin had some demons of his own and that he wasn’t a cruel person, just a tortured soul.
This is a musical with all the joy of recognizable songs and the beauty of a life well-lived, performed with top-notch choreography and a skillfully designed story arc. It is seldom that you see the story of a living legend written and performed so skillfully that you don’t want it to end. Beautiful is just that. Simply beautiful.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 26th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh review by Jeffrey Kare: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-BEAUTIFUL-THE-CAROLE-KING-MUSICAL-National-Tour-at-Durham-Performing-Arts-Center-20150926; Sept. 25th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/review-a-beautiful-performance-musical-tells-the-story-songs-of/article_7b69567a-6459-11e5-99b3-070c42c5102b.html and Sept. 18th preview by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: http://www.heraldsun.com/lifestyles/playing-carole-king-abby-mueller-to-star-in-broadway-tour/article_439636dc-5cbb-11e5-9132-134251ff04ad.html (Note: You must subscribe to read these articles); Sept. 19th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article35722368.html; and Sept. 14th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh interview with Liam Tobin, conducted by Jeffrey Care: http://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-TV-Liam-Tobin-of-BEAUTIFUL-THE-CAROLE-KING-MUSICAL-National-Tour-20150914. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 23rd Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2015/09/beautiful-at-dpac-chronicles-carole-kings-metamorphosis-from-teenaged-songwriter-to-star/.)
The Durham Performing Arts Center presents BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING STORY at 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 27, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 8 p.m. Oct. 2, 2 and 8 p.m. Oct. 3, 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 4 at 123 Vivian Street, Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $40.90-$185.22, including fees. (For Special Offers, click here.)
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-2787 or http://www.DPACnc.com/events-tickets/where-to-buy.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115558/2117653.
GROUP RATES (15 + tickets): 919-281-0587, groups@DPACnc.com, or http://www.DPACnc.com/events-tickets/group-services.
SHOW: http://www.DPACnc.com/events/detail/beautiful and https://www.facebook.com/events/626664987465078/.
AUDIO AND VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://beautifulonbroadway.com/sights-sounds/#.
THE TOUR: http://beautifulonbroadway.com/tour/.
TOUR CAST: http://beautifulonbroadway.com/about/cast-creative/#tour.
CREATIVE TEAM: http://beautifulonbroadway.com/about/cast-creative/#creative.
Carole King (songwriter and singer): http://www.caroleking.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=84001 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005580/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/CaroleKing (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/carole_king (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carole_King (Wikipedia).
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (2013 San Francisco, 2014 Broadway, and 2015 West End musical): http://beautifulonbroadway.com/ (official Broadway website), http://beautifulmusical.co.uk/ (official West End website), http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=495178 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beautiful:_The_Carole_King_Musical (Wikipedia).
Douglas McGrath (book): http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=495005 (Internet Broadway Database), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_McGrath (Wikipedia).
Ben Fankhauser (actor): http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=491586 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5025768/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/ben.fankhauser.3 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/PlznFankU (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Fankhauser (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.