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Brilliant is an Understatement! Marriott’s “Beautiful” is a Bonafide Work of Art!

Leave it to Marriott Theatre to top off the end of a stupendous season with its best show of the year. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is perhaps the best show Marriott has done in the last half of the decade.

Heaping that level of praise on such a lesser-done Broadway musical says a lot because the theatre company’s resume is top-notch. Every production in recent memory has been exceedingly good. That’s what happens when you hire the best directors and choreographers, and keep the amazing Ryan T. Nelson on staff as resident music director.

Jessica Fisch is gaining a reputation as one of Chicago’s top directors. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is Fisch’s Marriott Theatre debut, and it is a bonafide work of art. Fisch and her creative team have created something big and flashy that is at the same time tender and intimate. It succeeds on all levels – comedy, drama, music, dance, romance, spectacle, intimacy, and message.

Marriott’s “Beautiful” sets a new standard for feel-good musicals. Brilliant is an understatement.

Carole King is a singer/songwriter who is both unassuming and hugely impactful. Depending on what generation you’re in, King may not be a household name, but her resume includes 118 songs that charted on the Billboard 100. You may not know it, but you’ve probably heard many of her songs.

King is not only the most successful female songwriter in the latter half of the 20th century, she is a two-time inductee into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. She has won four Grammy Awards and such artists as Barbara Streisand, Helen Reddy, The Carpenters, Kylie Minogue, Celine Dion, and Aretha Franklin have recorded her songs. She even wrote songs for The Monkees.

While “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” may be about a songwriter and feature some of the songs that made her famous, it is not a thinly disguised revue of Carole King songs. Rather, it is a heartwarming and fascinating life story that uses some of her songs as a blended part of the narrative. It also includes songs by her contemporaries – songwriting partners Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

The production includes such stellar hits as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “One Fine Day,” “Up on the Roof,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Natural Woman”. And the arrangements and orchestrations are astounding. Songs I might have been passively interested in before, had me in hypnotic ecstasy thanks to sinfully sweet harmonies, genius overlapping sounds, and adjusted tempos.

“Beautiful” takes the audience on an introspective journey from King selling her first song at the age of 16 to famed music publisher Donnie Kirshner to playing Carnegie Hall at the height of her career after she started not just writing for other artists, but also began recording her material herself as well.

“Beautiful” was first staged in San Francisco in 2013. By 2014 it was on Broadway, earning seven Tony Award nominations including Best Musical. Jessie Mueller won the Best Actress in a Musical award for originating the lead role.

In an interview with It’s Showtime with Rikki Lee, the director of the current production running at Marriott through December 31st shares that it took a full year of preproduction meetings and related work with her design team to create what is now captivating audiences. The results speak volumes.

Marriott’s in-the-round stage has been transformed into a surreal open playing space atop something literally round – a giant record. The record motif was part of Fisch’s concept from first reading the script. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce achieves Master Samari status for the fantastically impressive end product, complete with working parts.

The scenic design by Boyce is well blended with media design by Anthony Churchill. He captures the spirit of scenes and eras with suggestive imagery that helps transition from one passage to another.

On the subject of transitioning from scene to scene, the efficiency of the scene changes in this production set a new standard. Actors and crew members work together seamlessly to make entire locations complete with furnishings change in little more than the blink of an eye. Kudos to stage manager Jessica Banaszak for running a tight ship.

There is a bit of wizardry at the beginning of the show that lets the audience know right from the get-go the night is going to be magical. It makes the impossible look easy.

The show begins and ends with King in concert at Carnegie Hall. Everything else is what leads up to that point in time. That means that star Kaitlyn Davis plays the singer/songwriter from when she was just a songwriter – and an aspiring one at that – at age 16 to her gaining fame and acceptance as a performer herself beginning in the 1970s.

Every theatre critic in Chicago has fallen in love with Kaitlyn Davis as Carole King. If Marriott was to cancel its entire next season and just extend Kaitlyn Davis in “Beautiful” indefinitely, it would still be commanding standing ovations for years to come.

Davis previously played the title role in the First National Tour, as well as in other regional productions. It is a role that fits her as beautifully as her own skin.

Triple threat is a term used to describe performers who sing, dance, and act – the very staple of musical theatre. The role of Carole King in “Beautiful” requires the character to interact from behind a piano at various times. That can’t be faked in a space like Marriott.

In addition to being a remarkable actress and singer, Davis is shockingly marvelous at tickling the ivories. She acts as an onstage member of the orchestra throughout the show. In fact, King at one point must display mastery of classical works as well, and Davis does so with a panache that made the audience audibly gasp on the night of review.

Fisch and her design team at large prove what team effort behind an exciting artistic vision can accomplish. Costume designer Sully Ratke, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Michael Daly, property designer Sally Zack, and wig designer Ray Sanchez all do a splendid job in their respective posts.

Music direction and choreography are both spectacular. Ryan T. Nelson is one of the elite Chicago music directors and proves it once again, doing incredible justice to the orchestrations and arrangements of Steve Sidwell. Choreography by Christopher Windom can be summed up with one word “Wow!”

Carole King was first known as a songwriter for other artists, having created some of history’s most memorable rock and pop songs. “Beautiful” includes dazzling performances of those songs by actors portraying The Shirelles, The Drifters, and Little Eva.

Going into the show, we were wondering how doo-wop choreography could work in an in-the-round staging. Christopher Windom’s choreography solves that dilemma in an exciting fashion. He is a talent to watch out for. His work is also on display in the MGM feature film “RESPECT” starring Jennifer Hudson and Aretha Franklin.

Putting Windom’s choreography skills and Nelson’s mastery of music direction on display, every performer in “Beautiful” ensemble is astounding. The way intimate scenes grow into big production numbers so cleanly is a credit to both great vision and great execution.

Davis is great. The ensemble is great. So, it stands to reason that co-stars Andrew Mueller, Eric Stephan, and Justin Albinder are all great. Magnificent is another fun superlative we could throw in the mix.  

Mueller plays King’s husband Gerry Goffin. He is not only her husband but also her writing partner. Goffin has a bit of grit to the shine of his star, perfecting his performance down to the smallest nuance.

Part of what makes “Beautiful” special is that it is neither sensationalist nor apologetic. People are real, not total villains or infallible heroes. Mueller makes this count with his take on Goffin.

Erica Stephan and Justin Albinder are a delight as the songwriting duo Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. They are the mortar that keeps everything in place. If a scene needs an added bonus of comedy, drama, or brilliant displays of music, then Stephan as Weil and Albinder as Mann are surely going to be called upon.

Stephan won the Joseph Jefferson Award for her recent starring performance as Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” at Porchlight Theatre in which she got to showcase some incredible dramatic skills. In the role of Cynthia, she gets to show off a different side – sassy, flirty, and modern in a 60’s chic sort of way.

Albinder is an absolute stitch as hypochondriac composer Mann. Like Stephan, Mueller, and King, his performance is effortless. He is completely convincing in his character. Watching him perform is like sitting down with an old friend. It’s comfortable and makes your heart happy.

Also turning in an incredibly impressive performance is Lawrence Grimm as music publisher Don Kirshner. He has a gruff charm, both caring and politely manipulative. Janet Ulrich Brooks is also good at Genie Klein, Carole King’s mother.

Rounding out the cast are Melanie Brezill, Christian Denzel Bufford, Caron Buinis, Ariana Burks, Dan Gold (who turned in a great understudy performance in multiple roles), Daryn Whitney Harrell, Kayla Kennedy, Adam LaSalle, Naiqui Macabroad, Michael Earvin Martin, Yasir Muhammad, Juwon Tyrel Perry, Alexis J Toston, Maye Rowe, Aisa Sougou, and Alina Taber.

If you want a play-by-play of every scene, look up the synopsis on Wikipedia. All you really need to know is that it’s a fascinating life story condensed into a touching book by Douglas McGrath that perfectly intertwines the music of Goffin & King and Mann & Weil. But if you want to experience something special, if you want to leave the theatre feeling like you’ve just witnessed greatness, then see “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at Marriott Theatre.

I know brilliance when I see it and “Beautiful” is brilliant. The performances are brilliant. The direction is brilliant. The choreography is brilliant. The orchestrations are brilliant. Buy your tickets and experience the brilliance for yourself.