Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical
The Phoenix Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Hahnna Christianson
Photo by Brennan Russell
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical is an engaging and highly entertaining musical that offers a poignant journey through the remarkable life and career of Carole King, showcasing her evolution from a talented songwriter to a celebrated recording artist and performer. The area premiere production at The Phoenix Theatre Company is a moving and energetic crowd-pleaser, anchored by the winning performance of local actress Hahnna Christianson in the role of King.

From her humble beginnings as Carole Klein to King's rise as a renowned singer-songwriter, the musical unfolds against the backdrop of New York City's vibrant music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s and depicts pivotal moments in King's life. Using Carole King as her songwriting name, she meets fellow writer Gerry Goffin at the college they both attended, and the two start writing songs together. Their professional collaboration soon blossoms into a personal relationship, and Douglas McGrath's expertly crafted book witnesses the highs and lows of their journey together.

The musical also explores the competitive friendship they share with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, which adds an additional layer to the story while also showcasing the bonds formed between artists striving for success. The straightforward plot is bookended by scenes from King's iconic 1971 Carnegie Hall concert. Through these glimpses into King's life, we experience the ups and downs of her career, including the triumphs of her "Tapestry" album and the challenges she faces in her relationship with Goffin.

There have been dozens of jukebox musicals in the past two decades that depict the rise to fame of a recording artist or group that is set against the difficulties of their off-stage lives, and one of the best of these is Beautiful. Perhaps what elevates this show over so many others in this genre is that most people associate King with the songs from her award-winning album "Tapestry," which features the hit tunes "I Feel the Earth Move," "You've Got a Friend" and "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," and aren't aware that she also was a successful songwriter, having written or co-written dozens of hugely popular pop songs for other artists, before finding her own voice as a singer and performer.

Most people also aren't knowledgeable of the many hit songs that Weil and Mann wrote and may be shocked to realize that these two songwriting duos wrote such chart-topping hits as "Up on the Roof," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Some Kind of Wonderful,” "The Loco-Motion," "On Broadway," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'." It's that element of surprise and the non-stop performances of these well-known tunes that make the audience realize just how talented King, Goffin, Weil, and Mann were.

Hahnna Christianson has been featured at theatre companies across the Valley, including a wonderful performance as Emma in The Prom at Phoenix Theatre last season, and she does an excellent job depicting both the youthful 16-year-old King, who is an energetic and optimistic songwriter, and the 29-year-old Grammy-winning artist who has endured the constant struggles of the music business where writers were always looking to come up with the next hit song, along with the marital issues she encountered with Goffin. Christianson's rich and polished singing voice beautifully evokes the warmth and emotion in King's many songs, although she doesn't depict the familiar grit and earthy delivery of King's signature singing style. While that may be a slight quibble for King fans, Christianson's portrayal is beautiful and filled with depth and sincerity.

Naysh Fox skillfully navigates the complexities of Gerry Goffin, the show's only true antagonist, with depth and nuance. Fox captures Goffin's charisma and charm; however, beneath the surface lies a troubled soul grappling with inner demons and personal struggles. While one may react negatively to Fox since Goffin caused King much pain and sorrow, he instills the character with a sense of humanity and empathy, allowing viewers to empathize with Goffin's struggles and shortcomings.

Caelan Creaser's (Cynthia Weil) witty line delivery and Justin Albinder's (Barry Mann) sharp comic abilities provide much of the show's humor. Their rich singing voices shine and they deliver three-dimensional portrayals of these likable songwriters who are competitive with King but also her best friends. D. Scott Withers is bright and charming, and also matter of fact, as song publisher and record producer Donnie Kirschner, and, as Carole's mother, Sally Jo Bannow brings realism and humor with her exceptionally sharp and dry line delivery. The hard-working ensemble successfully play a wide range of roles, from the many well-known singing groups and performing artists that King and her friends wrote for to the supporting characters in King's life.

Michael Barnard's concise direction ensures the dramatic scenes have weight and the humorous moments are natural with seamless and fluid transitions between the many scenes and locations due to Aaron Jackson's two-story set that features constantly moving scenic elements. Choreographer Lauran Stanis's period steps shine and are danced extremely well by the ensemble. The costumes and hair and make-up designs by Maci Hosler and Josh Lutton, respectively, cement the show in the 1960s and 1970s, while Jared A. Sayeg's rich lighting and Dave Temby's clear sound design are very effective. Kevin Robert White's music direction is spotless and derives impeccable vocals from the cast and rich notes from the 12 piece orchestra.

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical presents a heartfelt and engaging portrayal of King's life, from her humble beginnings to her triumphs in the face of many personal and professional obstacles. The musical offers a moving and humorous journey that celebrates the enduring legacy of one of music's most beloved icons.

Beautiful - The Carole King Musical runs through April 28, 2024, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-254-2151.

Director/Musical Staging: Michael Barnard
Choreographer: Lauran Stanis
Music Director: Kevin Robert White
Assistant Director: Michelle Chin
Scenic Designer: Aaron Jackson
Lighting Designer: Jared A. Sayeg
Costume Designer: Maci Hosler
Sound Designer: Dave Temby
Hair + Makeup Designer: Josh Lutton
Properties Master: Sarah Harris
Director of Production: Karla Frederick
Stage Manager: Samantha Monson *
Assistant Stage Manager: Maylea Bauers*

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Barry Mann: Justin Albinder*
Righteous Brother/Neil Sedaka/Ensemble/Barry Mann Understudy: Ryan Ardelt
Drifter/Ensemble: Matravius Avent*
Genie Klein: Sally Jo Bannow*
Betty/Marilyn/Ensemble/Carole King Understudy: Elyssa Blonder
Shirelle/Janelle/Ensemble: Jacqueline Castillo
Shirelle/Lucille/Ensemble: Maya Christian*
Carole King: Hahnna Christianson*
Cynthia Weil: Caelan Creaser*
Shirellle/Little Eva/Ensemble: Sade Crosby
Gerry Goffin: Naysh Fox*
Drifter/Ensemble: Chafik Jay
Drifter/Nick/Ensemble: D'Mariel*
Righteous Brother/Ensemble/Gerry Goffin Understudy: Josh Pike
Shirelle/Ensemble: Gabrielle Francine Smith
Drifter/Ensemble/Donny Kirschner Understudy: Nate Summers*
Donny Kirschner: D. Scott Withers*
Betty/Marilyn/Ensemble Understudy: Jena Allen
Cynthia and Genie Understudy: Shani Barrett
Drifters Swing: Brett Hennessey Jones
Righteous Swing: Teddy Ladley
Shirelles Swing: Crystal Renée Wright

*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.