BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Is A Toe-Tapping Celebration Of An Underappreciated Artist

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BEAUTIFUL at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis. PHOTO CREDIT: Joan Marcus

I’ll admit it—I’m embarrassed. What I knew about Carole King before arriving at the Fabulous Fox to see BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL consisted mostly of the soft rock easy listening stuff I used to get subjected to when my coworkers would insist on tuning our radio to the “Delilah” show on KEZK in St. Louis. I knew she won a Grammy forTapestry and you can hear “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel The Earth Move,” and “A Natural Woman” pretty regularly still today. I knew she was elected into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but they let Green Day and The Public Enemy in too--Run DMC and Public Enemy got in before Peter Gabriel, Rush (are you kidding me?), Lou Reed, Hall & Oats, Nirvana and KISS. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy rap music a great deal, but this isn’t the Hip Hop Hall of Fame, this is Rock & Roll. Carole King, no disrespect intended, didn’t really strike me as a rock star either.

I was wrong. So horribly, terribly, embarrassingly wrong. Carole King isn’t just a rock star; she’s quite possibly the most important woman in the history of rock music.  

Carole King, played by Abby Mueller, who’s sister Jessie originated the role on Broadway, started her career as a 16 year old prodigy named Carol Kline, who was doggedly determined to not let her youth, gender or Jewish upbringing stop her from writing music. She managed to get an audience with entrepreneurial music producer Don Kirshner (Curt Boursil), who was impressed enough to buy her song, “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” Soon after she met Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin through March 3rd’s performance in St. Louis, Ryan Farnsworth replaces him through March 6th shows), who soon after became her lyricist, her husband and the father of her first child, Louise. Goffin and King wrote so many hits it’s ridiculous. From 1955 through 1999 she had writing credits on 118 songs that reached Billboard’s Top 100 list. She wrote 61 top hits in the UK as well, which leads all other female songwriters during the period of 1952 through 2005. Do the math, kids: 179 hit songs in the two most rock & roll crazy countries on earth, for about half of the Chicago Cubs’ World Series drought. That’s mind-boggling! The Goffin-King duo penned hits for The Drifters, The Shirelles, Bobby Vee, Aretha Franklin – heck, they even started “The Loco-Motion,” which was a smash hit for their babysitter, Little Eva and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for The Monkees!

In the next office down the hall at Aldon Records, the dynamic duo’s rivals and eventual best friends, Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and her hypochondriac partner (and eventual husband) Barry Mann (the outstanding Ben Fankhauser) were busy chasing Goffin and King up the charts with songs for The Righteous Brothers, The Animals, The Drifters, Paul Revere and the Raiders and many more. As the years ticked by, Gerry started cheating on Carole, even telling her outright that he intended to sleep with Janelle Woods (Rebecca E. Covington), who caught his eye while performing “One Fine Day,” during a TV special taping. Gerry became increasing absent from the family’s lives, living with Janelle or others for days. Eventually he suffered a nervous breakdown, and soon after Carole King was pushing early middle age with two kids and no husband. She packed up and moved to California, where she soon joined forces with the legendary producer Lou Adler who helped her craft Tapestry. The show ends with Carole performing at Carnegie Hall, having made her peace with Gerry and having overcome her own shyness to accept if not completely embrace her inner rock star.  

Abby Mueller is clearly the next best thing to seeing a Carole King concert in person. She sounds spot on, and her singing voice was unwavering all night long. Abby also maintained a spot on Brooklyn/Yiddish accent, and played Carole as an absolutely sweetheart. One thing I noticed in the show was that some performers seemed to "theatre" their vocals, over-enunciating somewhat every now and then, the way one might in something like WICKED or GREASE. Rock & roll is usually just belted out with gusto, pronuciation be damned. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam fame is never going to be confused with Zero Mostel. Abby Mueller's performance was nuanced, allowing for the musical style where appropriate, and rocking out when necessary. Ben Fankhauser also stood out with his comic timing and dry wit. Their chemistry with their respective partners felt very natural. There was one song, I think it might been “One Fine Day,” where it felt like one of the background singers was yelling more than singing, drowning out the lead vocalist on that song, but it could have been an accidental twist of a nob on the soundboard too, as others I asked during intermission didn't seem to notice. The production’s first act is a swift slice of early rock & roll, and it’s terrific. As King, Goffin, Weil and Mann duke it out song by song, hit by hit, the would sing a short demo before giving way to the ensemble cast who danced like The Drifters or sang like The Righteous Brothers. It was a nice way to add a bit of showbiz sparkle and glitz – and a little bit of dancing – to an otherwise low-key affair, no pun intended. The set was deep and gliding furniture and wall panels smoothly transitioned from frenzied studio to the lighted stage. The second act slows down a little, with the drama of Carole and Gerry splitting up and starting over, but it’s never terribly melancholy. I would imagine the real Carole king was devastated but there just wasn’t enough time to dwell on the negative aspects, and quite honestly that was perfectly okay with me. This wasn’t intended to be a definitively biographical, it’s meant to be a celebration of a wonderful artist’s long career. It doesn’t revolutionize the musical in any way, but it does give clueless know-it-alls like me a chance to stand in lobby for a minute, feeling like Stan or Kyle from SOUTH PARK, and thinking to myself, “I learned something today!” Carole King was so much more than a staple of easy listening radio. She was a pioneering woman in a mail-dominated industry, a trailblazer of popular music and one heck of a talented, enduring, beautiful artist.

Marc Bruni’s production of BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL is an entertaining romp through the early days of rock & roll that should not be missed. The show runs from now through March 06. Visit www.FabulousFox.com for tickets and http://beautifulonbroadway.com/ for more on the show and tour dates.

Grade: 
5.0 / 5.0