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A Well-Woven Tapestry: On Second Viewing, The Carole King Musical Remains 'Beautiful' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Carole King Musical
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru January 28

Although "jukebox musicals" featuring famous songs of a certain artist, genre, era, etc., long predate the 21st century, a plethora came along in the wake of Mamma Mia, whose cavalcade of ABBA classics bowed in London in 1999 and on Broadway in 2001.

In my estimation, some of these pop songbook shows have been quite good, not just musically but theatrically.

Along with Mamma Mia--which is just infectiously fun--Jersey Boys is probably the best jukebox musical, for the way it tells the story of The Four Seasons while representing more universal truths.

But while it might seem ridiculously easy to compile a bunch of pop hits and call it a musical--without having to write any new songs--it's actually a rather tricky enterprise.

The Million Dollar Quartet works wonderfully because it focuses on the music and personas of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis without much storyline, but many a jukebox musical has failed to fully satisfy due to a decidedly flimsy book, despite many fantastic songs.

Motown: The Musical and Rock of Ages come to mind in the latter regard, though there are many far worse examples (We Will Rock You, All Shook Up).

Photo credit on all: Matthew Murphy
And yet, while I can't say its narrative ever really digs deep, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical belongs in the upper echelon.

Not just of jukebox musicals, but--though a bit below the very best--among musicals of any kind.

This is largely what I thought--and even wrote--upon first seeing Beautiful, on tour in Chicago in December 2015.

But not only do I like seeing shows I enjoy multiple times, from a critical perspective it seems beneficial to take a second look to better gauge the merits of the material (and then, over time, to see a show as it moves onto regional, local and even community theater productions).

With a fine cast, including Chicago actress Sarah Bockel in the lead role--I'd seen her in a 2014 Hypocrites production of Into the Woods--as well as Andrew Brewer (as Gerry Goffin), Sarah Goeke (especially good as Cynthia Weil), Jacob Heimer (Barry Mann) and James Clow (Don Kirshner), this beholder believes Beautiful holds up quite beguilingly.

The outline of the show is pretty simple.

Starting in 1958, the show runs through Carole King--whose real name was Carol Klein--pitching early songs to producer Don Kirshner in a "songwriting factory" at 1650 Broadway in New York (near and similar to the Brill Building), meeting, collaborating with and marrying lyricist Gerry Goffin, having their songs recorded by various artists represented onstage (Shirelles, Drifters, etc.), befriending the rival songwriting team of Mann & Weil, experiencing marital discord, moving to LA and creating her landmark Tapestry album.

Douglas McGrath's book takes a few biographical creative liberties and is rather light in some aspects, but he and director Marc Bruni rather niftily work in a good deal not just about King and Goffin, but Mann & Weil as well, including a good handful of their songs.

Much of the joy in Act I comes from delectable enactments of artists singing King/Goffin and Mann/Weil compositions, and since the fun is abetted by the element of surprise, I'll just cite "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" (by the Shirelles), "The Locomotion" (by Little Eva, played by Alexis Tidwell) and a great take on "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" by rather righteous Righteous Brothers (John Michael Dias, Matt Faucher).

Though Act II also has many great songs, it feels as though it is stretching a bit before getting to the Tapestry period (which in reality was King's third album in Los Angeles, including one as part of a trio called The City).

Except for an ebullient group encore, the show ends with King's 1971 solo concert at Carnegie Hall, when she was still just 29.

Given that she is now 75, it's hard to call Beautiful her "life story," but it really does hit the right notes.

Sure, some things happen a bit too breezily before our eyes, but as a "jukebox musical" it not only does a great job in delivering the music we want to hear--while Bockel does a swell job in helping us appreciate the breadth of King's talent--it serves also to depict a young woman finding her way in life.

Complete with career, romance, friendship, children, complications, betrayal, resolve and more.

All, at Chicago's Cadillac Palace until January 28, rendered quite beautifully.

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