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Leading lady gives showstopping turn in Marriott's heartfelt 'Beautiful'

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" -- ★ ★ ★ ½

So primed was the audience for Marriott Theatre's first Chicago-made production of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," they began applauding before Kaitlyn Davis' fingers touched the piano, before she sang a note.

Clearly their affection for King -- one of America's most influential, successful and beloved songwriters -- fueled their initial enthusiasm. But it was Davis' candor and uncanny vocal resemblance to King, Andrew Mueller's performance as her first husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin and a top-notch cast that prompted the standing ovation that concluded Marriott's heartfelt, humorous revival.

Marriott's is first of three "Beautiful" revivals set to open in the suburbs over the next 14 months, so Carole King fans have other opportunities to experience the show. But I encourage fans to see director Jessica Fisch's wry, sprightly production not just for Davis, who played the role during the show's 2021 national tour and deftly navigates King's evolution from impressionable teen to empowered woman, but for Mueller's terrific turn as Goffin.

Featuring songs by King and Goffin and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a book by Douglas McGrath, the jukebox tuner focuses on King's early career through the release of her iconic, Grammy Award-winning "Tapestry."

It begins in 1971, at King's Carnegie Hall concert then flashes back 13 years to Brooklyn, New York, where the plucky 16-year-old Queens College student convinces mother Genie (played with comic understatement by Janet Ulrich Brooks) to let her pitch her song to Manhattan record producer Don Kirshner (the endearingly stone-faced Lawrence Grimm). Recognizing the appeal songs written by teenagers have on teenage record buyers, Kirshner hires her. Soon after, she meets budding lyricist Goffin (fine work by Mueller, whose performance is rooted in restless yearning and self-doubt). Their professional collaboration turns romantic. Marriage and children follow. So does a friendship with fellow songwriter Cynthia Weil (Erica Stephan) and her hypochondriac partner Barry Mann (Justin Albinder providing comic relief).

Friendly competition ensues as the couples pen hits for The Shirelles, The Drifters and the Righteous Brothers (all consummately conjured by the ensemble). Successful professionally, King and Goffin unravel personally as the artistically frustrated Goffin engages in affairs that doom their musical partnership and their marriage, whose end marks King's emergence as a powerful force in popular music.

The action unfolds beneath a deconstructed piano keyboard on set designer Andrew Boyce's cleverly conceived, revolving stage consisting of an LP flanked by two 45s. That's one example of the sense of fun that underscores this production. Case in point, Fisch addressing with a wink and a nod jukebox bio-tuner cliches, which are reflected in cameos by Ben Mayne and Adam LaSalle's Righteous Brothers and Mayne's Neil Sedaka. That said, Fisch fully embraces "Beautiful" as a celebration of the creative spirit of the titular artist and her colleagues, including the singers who made her songs famous.

Alexis J. Roston, Melanie Brezill, Ariana Burks and Daryn Whitney Harrell play The Shirrelles, whose chirpy "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" contrasts with Davis' weightier, more intimate version. Christian Denzel Bufford, Naiqui Macabroad, Yasir Muhammad and Juwon Tyrel Perry are The Drifters whose honeyed vocals on a lovely rendition of Goffin and King's "Up on the Roof" is exceeded only by their performance of Weil and Mann's irresistible "On Broadway." Complemented by Christopher Windom's graceful pop choreography, "On Broadway" nearly stops the show.

Nearly. That honor goes to Davis, whose impassioned "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" -- reflecting King coming into her own as a woman and a solo artist -- stops the show. Deservedly so.