Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
When attending Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which is currently playing at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, it seems appropriate that the first thing the audience sees is a grand piano, and little else. After all, this show, which tells the story of songwriter Carole King and her friends, features numerous well-known pop and rock songs from the 1960s and 1970s written by the primary characters. Much of the story focuses on their challenges and struggles to write hit songs. The musical is a smoothly directed and tuneful crowd pleaser, which is especially apt for the many baby boomers who make up the audience, and the national tour features a talented cast.
Beautiful premiered on Broadway in 2014 and received seven Tony nominations, including one for Best Musical. The story takes place between 1958 and 1971. King, along with her soon-to-be-husband Gerry Goffin, plus the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, work out of the offices of music publisher Donnie Kirshner at 1650 Broadway in New York. Despite changing musical styles, competition, romantic entanglements, and other life challenges, the music that the four produce shaped much of the American music landscape of the time.
The book for the show by Douglas McGrath provides a solid framework for showcasing the songs in a very natural and unforced manner. Carole is introduced as a promising 16-year-old songwriter, and the character remains a well-grounded and amiable one throughout. The other main characters are sufficiently introduced as well, and there's a nice balance of drama, conflict and humor (including some very funny one-liners). However, the plot seems to lack depth at times, telling the story efficiently but rarely providing significant insight to the characters. Things get a bit better in act two, and it would be too critical to call the show "shallow," but the storytelling is the weakest element in the show.
The creators wisely didn't attempt to shoehorn the songs into the show as book numbers, trying to tell the story; instead they are showcased as performance numbers or featured as they're being composed or auditioned within the writing studio. Before Carole King became a performer (best known for her album Tapestry, she and husband Goffin wrote songs for other singers. "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof,", "The Loco-Motion," "One Fine Day," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" are King/Goffin songs. The Mann/Weil duo likewise produced numbers such as "Who Put the Bomp," "On Broadway," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," among others. All of these are featured in the show, along with King's performance numbers including "So Far Away," "You've Got a Friend," "A Natural Woman," and the title number. By the time the finale of "I Feel the Earth Move" starts, the audience is on their feet and applauding.
Julia Knitel captures the innocent, everyday woman quality of self-proclaimed "square" Carole King, and sings with heartfelt convictionand sounding much like King in her vocal interpretations. Liam Tobin is a handsome, strong, and emotionally conflicted Gerry Goffin and sings wonderfully. Erika Olson conveys the quirky confidence of Cynthia Weil, getting lots of laughs and showing off strong vocals, and Ben Fankhauser shows off delightful singing and instrumental talents as the humorously neurotic Barry Mann. Broadway and touring vets James Clow (Don) and Suzanne Grodner (Genie) provide first-rate support, and it seems like the hardworking ensemble actors are in non-stop motion, especially when portraying the other singers and songwriters in the show.
Director Marc Bruni provides a quick pace, smooth transitions, and the proper tone for each moment. The varied choreography by Josh Prince showcases dances befitting the songs and time, and adds some visual sparkle to the proceedings. Susan Draus leads the excellent sounding band.
The scenic design by Derek McLane consists of two bi-level pieces on each side of the stage, along with sliding drops and a number of smaller set pieces to aptly convey the various settings. Alejo Vietti's costumes express the ever-changing period attire sufficiently, are attractive (including some glitzy performance outfits), and feature a few quick-change gimmicks as well. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski include small, subtle effects which help to evoke the different time periods effectively.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical isn't groundbreaking in any way, but it's a solid, entertaining showcase for some great music and it efficiently tells the story of the people who wrote the songs of a generation. As far as jukebox musicals go, it's one of the better ones by far. An extremely talented and well-cast group of performers makes this a crowd pleasing national tour indeed.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues in Cincinnati at the Aronoff Center through May 14, 2017. Tickets can be ordered by calling 800-294-1816. For more information on the tour, visit beautifulonbroadway.com/tour.