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Review: ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ superb, the best at Marriott Theatre in years

Review: “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (4 stars)

At one point in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” the 16-year-old version of Carole King heads with a friend to 1650 Broadway in New York, hoping to sell one of her numbers. “It’s like a factory,” she tells her worried Brooklyn mother, “only they make songs.”

At that moment in Jessica Fisch’s superbly directed new production at the Marriott Theatre, the most artful show in years at this venerable musical house, the round stage suddenly fills with young people all in the everyday thrall of making and selling music. It’s a richly detailed piece of staging, no doubt forged with choreographer Christopher Windom, and topping even Fisch’s similarly witty treatment of the song “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Both of these emotionally potent numbers are examples of how this fresh Marriott take improves upon director Marc Bruni’s original Broadway staging. Bruni did superb work, so that’s no faint praise.

Fisch’s production has certain extraordinary assets.

No. 1 is Kaitlyn Davis (as King), a vulnerable, unpretentious actress who rightly focuses on the fundamental King paradox: she always wanted a stable family, which proved elusive, far more than fame and acclaim, which did not. Unless I was occasionally deceived, Davis played the entire piano part live, which was not true on Broadway and as rare in jukebox musicals as a sympathetic record company executive.

No. 2 is Andrew Mueller diving deep into the role of King’s husband, Gerry Goffin. Mueller is the brother of this show’s original Broadway star, Jessie Mueller, and also the brother of Abby Mueller who took over the role on Broadway after Jessie. The Evanston Muellers, you might say, know their “Beautiful” and I suspect that all Andrew had to do to know was pick up the phone to know that he’s got a friend with tips. He’s quite spectacular in the part, turning what can be a cardboard villain into a deep and moving dive inside a troubled and dysfunctional soul, even suggesting that this songwriting combination is what helped produce so much excellence.

Fisch also has cast real actors, of the Chicago style, in the character roles: the likes of Lawrence Grimm as the gruff but paternalistic song broker of 1650 Broadway and Janet Ulrich Brooks as Carole’s mom. Fisch clearly understood that not everybody needs to sing, especially when you have the luminous Erica Stephan playing (sadly now the late) Cynthia Weil and the melodically caustic Justin Albinder as Barry Mann.

Watching “Beautiful” for the fourth time (the first three were the original 2014 staging), I was reminded how well bookwriter Douglas McGrath hit all the affectionate notes you have to hit for the core audience of King fans, but did so with the kind of wit and verve that none of the biographical jukes that have followed quite managed. Part of the secret sauce here is the size of the ensemble, and the show’s emphasis on all the Black artists who recorded the justly famed songs of King and Goffin and Weil and Mann. You get a cornucopia of musical delights from the 1960 and 1970s and lots of opportunities for fun cameos, all grabbed here by the likes of Melanie Brezill.

Finally, Marriott has dared to turn up the volume of its oft-repressed band. The show rocks when it needs to rock on “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the scenic designer Andrew Boyce has created a classy and elegant set with a moving turnable and extensive video backdrops: you can believe you’re in Carnegie Hall when that moment comes, but this production is just as comfortable in the small Brooklyn home whence one of America’s greatest songwriters came.

Over the last couple of years, it often has felt like Marriott is stuck in another decade, understandably so, perhaps, given its core senior audience. But the reality is that today’s theatergoing grays grew up not with “Try to Remember a Kind of September” but with “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” And “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” A good question at any age.

Marriott is figuring out what Broadway also has realized. And with a director at the helm who can cast great singers but focuses on the acting, fusing Chicago’s musical theater and straight-play talent pool, it can do all kinds of exciting things. After a rough year or two, this new season in Lincolnshire already has offered a top-drawer “Gypsy,” both powerful and moving, and now a “Beautiful” that’s entirely worth the drive (it’s Not So Far Away) if you are a fan of this show or this artist.

Once King’s fans find this production and understand how much more it has brought to the table, it’ll be one of Marriott’s biggest hits.