Back to show

Beautiful: Revisiting the Brilliance of Carole King Once Again

There are two moments I love most when I’ve seen productions of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

First, the audience usually contains a fair number of people who grew up with Ms. King’s songs as the soundtrack to their younger years. And when those songs start being performed during the show, the years since those youthful days disappear and folks start singing along, tapping along, smiling along. The room lightens and brightens somehow.

The second moment happens at intermission. Many of those same people who’d just been transported to their youths declare, “I didn’t know she wrote that song” or “She wrote that song?”

To me, those are two of Carole King’s superpowers—and the reason she’s always been the perfect and most deserving subject of a Broadway jukebox musical. She’s not only the soundtrack to millions of adolescences, to happier days, to young love, to better times (I’ve made the case before that she’s the American Lennon and McCartney, all in one package), but she did it (and still does it, per those surprised comments at intermission) on the sly.

And that—both King’s genius, and the path that genius took to being recognized—is the magic of the current production of Beautiful at the Marriott Theatre, directed by Jessica Fisch.

First off, the production has a wonderful Carole King. Kaitlyn Davis certainly knows the role, having played King in productions both nationally and regionally. But it’s not just that Davis plays Carole King. She really becomes Carole King. I’m a big fan of Ms. King, and Davis’ portrayal—throughout King’s career—is spot-on. Like King, Davis is an accomplished pianist, accompanying herself throughout the show—while also nailing the timbre and tone of King’s voice; seriously, this isn’t a theater person approximating a songwriter’s voice, it’s someone with a warm singer/songwriter’s voice who’s also got Broadway chops.

And Davis does more than just sound like Carole King. She looks like her. As King, she transforms throughout the show, as King ages and lives her life—going from a 16-year-old girl in Brooklyn to a wife and mother who also happens to live at the top of the Billboard charts. And she has real chemistry with Andrew Mueller, who plays husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin. Mueller’s Goffin, Janet Ulrich Brooks’ Genie Klein (Carole’s mother), and Lawrence Grimm’s record producing Don Kirshner (who could’ve easily been overplayed as just a stereotypical music biz exec, but who Grimm gives some nice humanity) all connect emotionally with Davis and make this more than just a jukebox, but a biography.

But, like every Marriott production I’ve seen, the rest of the cast is what takes this show to a whole other level. Stacked with talented actors, the cast transports us back to a certain time and place both sonically and visually. Erica Stephan, always a pro in any productions she’s in, is mid-century elegance as rival songwriter and friend, Cynthia Weil. Weil’s partner in music and love, Barry Mann, provides the show’s comic relief, but Justin Albinder does more than just get laughs—his musical numbers are among the show’s highlights—especially his duet with Stephan on “Walking in the Rain” and his solo electric performance of what would become an Animals hit, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

And that right there is what I was talking about up at the top…

Everyone knows that song. Or, when it comes on oldies radio or a commercial, they remember that they once knew that song. But folks don’t often realize that that song, and so many other hit songs from that era, didn’t just magically appear on vinyl or on the radio waves. No, people wrote those songs. And that’s what this show explores—making people of Mann and Weil and Goffin and, especially, King.

But it then, again thanks to the Marriott production’s wonderful ensemble, puts those songs back into their natural habitat, as hit songs on the charts of a particular era. Songs performed by girl groups and vocal groups and people other than songwriters grinding—albeit beautifully—at an old upright piano.

The group who really brings the King/Goffin and Weil/Mann compositions to life throughout the show is the production's Drifters—Christian Denzel Bufford, Naiqui Macabroad, Yasir Muhammad, and Juwon Tyrel Perry. Each of The Drifters provide lead vocals when it’s his turn, but they all also act as a musical time machine, with their smooth 60s dance moves (choreographed by Christopher Windom), their stunningly coordinated outfits, and their beautifully blended vocal harmonies. These four turn what are great songs into hits.

And so do the rest of the ensemble. Daryn Whitney Harrell stuns the audience (and, spoiler alert, a heartbroken King) with her “One Fine Day.” Ariana Burks does the same with Mann and Weil’s “Uptown.” We see a song go from good idea to great piece of art when that same songwriting duo’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” goes from Mann plunking around on it himself to Adam LaSalle and Ben Mayne as The Righteous Brothers making it one of the biggest hits ever. And near the end, this comes full circle, as Melanie Brezill, Alexis J. Roston, and Alina Taber provide the soulful backing vocals the audience knows and expects on a showstopping version of Goffin and King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

And while Kaitlyn Davis’ Carole King reclaims that song and makes it King’s own, just as she makes this role her own, it is also thanks to the entire cast and crew of Marriott’s production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical—running now through December 31—that until the end of the year audiences will be transported back to their younger years. And that—the ability to bend time, to break hearts, and to buoy spirits, all through song—shows the beautiful brilliance of Carole King.