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8/23/2023          BEAUTIFUL:  THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL       Aurora Theatre


To open its new season, Aurora Theatre has staged the first area production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.   An elegantly complete bio-musical, this show is filled to the brim with songs we’ll always remember and is, in the final analysis, a show I’ll never forget.


For those like me (i.e., “of a certain age”), Carole King burst upon the American Consciousness with the release of her 1971 album Tapestry.  Most of us were surprised to learn that she had been a part of pop music for over decade before then, writing hit after hit with her husband Gerry Goffin – hits like “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and (especially), “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”  After two kids and a successful career, Carole and Gerry parted ways and Carole moved to L.A. where she created Tapestry and became a pop star – a pop ICON in her own right.


Beautiful begins with her 1971 Carnegie Hall concert then quickly takes us back to 1958 and her first song sold to music publisher/producer Don Kirshner.  She was 16 at the time.  She and her new husband remained in Kirshner’s Aldon Music “stable” for years, along with such songwriting luminaries as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”).  At the time the two couples were in competition with each other, though they remained close life-long friends.   We follow Carole King’s career as she and Gerry have hit after hit, as their marriage hits hurdle after hurdle until it finally dissolves, as Carole takes her children to L.A. and finds her voice as a solo artist.   The show ends where it began – with Carole King playing Carnegie Hall to an acclaim her songs had always brought others.

This is more than just a “juke box musical” of the hits of Carole King (and those of Weil and Mann).  It is an exuberant valentine to the music of the fifties and sixties, a memorable portrait of a woman who embraces music as much as life, and a wallow in the hits and stars of the time.  But mostly, it’s a portrait of Carole King, a towering talent and musician who more than deserves every accolade that came her way.


King and Goffin and Weil and Mann were also friends with another songwriting husband-wife team, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, whose “songbook” was the subject of the off-Broadway revue, Leader of the Pack.  That show focuses on songs from the same era, but the songs had a sameness to them that is totally missing from Beautiful.  If I may offer a non-musician’s opinion, it’s as if Barry and Greenwich wrote for a general type of audience, while King and Goffin and Weil and Mann wrote for specific singers and groups.  How often in this show do we hear a variation of “This one is perfect for {Insert Pop Artist or Group Here}?”  There is such variety in these songs, in this show, that I simply cannot stop listening to its score.


If I can offer one minor observation, although this is the story of King and Goffin, the story of Weil and Mann almost steal the focus – they are outsized personalities and the only one of the three teams who remained married (at least until Weil’s passing earlier this year).  And their hits were every bit as memorable as King and Goffin’s.   The real difference is that Weil never had a solo career, and Mann’s, at least after "Who Put the Bomp,” was respectable but never achieved the heights of Carole King’s.


What is most memorable about this show is the obvious love and respect for the process, for the creative joy in having the germ of an idea (music or lyrics) get married to another germ of an idea (lyrics or music) leading to a fully professional recording.  We see more than a few numbers performed by the writers at their keyboards, then repeated by the artists who made them famous with full orchestrations, the ensemble slipping into the many roles and making them fit like a spangled dress or tuxedo.  This joy of the process is embodied by the magical sequence in which Carole King starts to record “Natural Woman” and as she loses herself in the song, the studio slowly vanishes and she is left alone in a downstage spotlight, rapturously floating on the music of her own creation.


Full credit MUST be given to Bethany Irby’s performance as Carole –she resembles King, but she gives a full performance, not an impersonation, even providing her own keyboard accompaniment.  It is a breathtakingly beautiful achievement (pun intended).  Indeed, Ms. Irby seems to approach every scene, every song, every moment with a smile on her face and in her heart.  Even when that heart is visibly breaking.


Ben Thorpe is equally impressive as Gerry Goffin, adding a bit of regret to his wandering eye  Like Carole, he is totally devoted to the music, even as the marriage is chafing his gills.  It should be noted that the real Gerry Goffin attended the Broadway premier of Beautiful, shortly before his passing in 2014.  I can see Mr. Thorpe’s Gerry some day doing the same, just as he attends the climactic Carnegie Hall concert.


Chloe Cordle and Jon Hacker are also wonderful as Weil and Mann, filling the “comic best friends” roles perfectly, and projecting their love of music to each other and to us.  In other memorable roles, Cory Phelps is a gruff and patient Don Kirshner, totally overturning our expectations of how a record executive treats his artists.  Jennifer Pagnard turns the Brooklyn to full for her portrayal of Carole’s mother.  From the ensemble, watch out for Rose Seton’s Little Eva, Jordan Patrick and Leo Thomasian’s Righteous Brothers, and Megan Ritchie’s Marilyn Wald.  Larger groups were also perfectly enacted – the Shirelles of Mya Burns, Naomi Rachel Green, and Alexandra Joy, and the Drifters of Maurice Jerry, Greg Hunter, Russel J. Scott, and Stephan Joquan Wilson.


Music Director Ann-Carol Pence brings all her skill and enthusiasm to recreating the right sound, the right mood, the right orchestrations, and she leads the 9-piece orchestra with her usual panache.  Director and Choreographer David Rosetti seems right at home with the mammoth logistics involved with the thousand scenes required (all shifts and segues were fast and elegant and seamless).  He seems equally “at home”, with the dances of the era (“The Locomotion” looks especially impressive).  Costume Designer Alan Yeong is to be congratulated for making everyone look comfortable with the era, and for building costumes that made the many REALLY fast changes seem effortless.


Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a full wallow in the life and talent of this remarkable artist.  It is produced by a group of artists who are equally remarkable.  You’re gonna find (yes you will) that it is as beautiful as it makes you feel.


     --  Brad Rudy   (   #ATBeautiful   #CaroleKing  #CynthiaWeil   #BarryMann)

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