When you think of singer/songwriter Carole King and Broadway musicals, there’s an instant disconnect; the humble simplicity of King’s Tapestry album cover clashing with the glitz and blare of the Great White Way.
So a Broadway musical about King’s career is more of a stylistic stretch than a biomusical about most rock stars, pop stars, or jazz and blues divas. Everyone involved behind the scenes of the original 2014 production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical seemed keenly aware of the dichotomy, including director Marc Bruni, orchestrator/arranger Steve Sidwell and scriptwriter Douglas McGrath.
In the end, coping with the problem meant leaning into it. Not too subtly, they conspired to make the early stages of King’s career seem crass and commercial, as if she were trapped in the dog-eat-dog maw of the pop music industry.
King and her writing partner, lyricist Gerry Goffin, write the songs while producer Don Kirshner finds the singers and the groups who will cut the singles — the likes of Bobby Vee, Little Eva, The Drifters, and The Shirelles. Yet somehow the hierarchy is flipped in the famed Brill Building in NYC.
Carole and Gerry are slaving for Kirshner, a genial industry mogul and taskmaster, and the couple’s best early music loses a lot of its luster when it’s farmed out, especially when “Up on the Roof” falls into the hands of The Drifters and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is butchered by The Shirelles, thanks to excessively ornate Sidwell arrangements that would be more at home on Broadway or Vegas than Motown.
These excesses helped Jessie Mueller to shine all the more brightly in the original cast — and for her sister, Abby Mueller, to shine equally when the touring version hit the Queen City in April 2016.
So a downsized production, like the one currently running at Matthews Playhouse through Jan. 28, actually has the potential to be better than the Broadway and touring versions — with the right personnel and sufficient pizzazz, that is. With Billy Ensley directing and Lindsey Schroeder leading a heavyweight cast, both those boxes are checked.
The Broadway ensemble sheds two of its three keyboards, one its two guitars, and one of its percussionists as it nestles into Matthews. The slimming helps. No longer smothered by their orchestrations, Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol,” Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula,” and Little Eva’s “Loco-Motion” sound more like rock music and less like mockeries.
Ensley targets the megahit by the King-Goffin duo’s friendly rivals, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, for his most farcical treatment. Not only is the arrangement of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” garishly distorted, amped up from the swampy-echoey-churchy vibe of the original single, but the gulf between the bass and tenor voices of the Righteous Brothers is greatly emphasized, exaggerated, and comically exploited by Johnny Hohenstein and Zach Linick.
McGrath’s book is most affecting when it deals directly with King, though there’s bold poetic license in his voodoo, historically speaking. Pressured by Kirshner to come up with a new hit overnight for The Shirelles (in real life, they only had one hit record so far), King writes the music and goes to bed with Goffin. Perfect setup.
Wouldn’t you like to wake up in the morning and find the handwritten lyrics for “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” perched on your piano — then be the first person on Earth to read and sing them?
No disrespect to the great Bobby Vee, but we’ve suddenly ascended more than a few notches above “Take Good Care of My Baby.” This moment still grabs me, but there are more moments like that after intermission, when “You’ve Got a Friend” and “A Natural Woman” are unveiled, that choke me up even more — as King breaks away from the Brill Building and starts to do her own thing.
Schroeder replicates the sandy sound of Carole’s voice from the beginning, but as she transforms from a demo singer behind an upright piano to a chart-topping performer, watch out. Schroeder can not only belt — she can tear your heart out.
McGrath’s dramatization heightens the magic most memorably when “You’ve Got a Friend” is reframed as a not-quite-farewell song, when King embarks for her solo career in LA with Kirshner’s blessing and both Barry and Cynthia gather round the old upright with her to sing this newborn masterpiece.
The song didn’t really come out until her second album, but who’s counting, right?
Nick Southwick as Barry and Sophie Lanser as Cynthia (get that woman a more reliable mic!) deliver polished performances all evening long, but they also grow more gravitas after intermission.
Lanser sheds the frivolity of a “Happy Days Are Here Again” parody and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” then joins Southwick — previously mired in the silliness of “Who Put the Bomp” and the wrong-key version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin” — in a heartfelt “Walking in the Rain” duet.
Then if you haven’t started weeping with Schroeder’s “It’s Too Late,” you’re at the mercy of “You’ve Got a Friend” when Lanser and Southwick join in on the quivering-lip goodbyes. After playing Kirshner with avuncular savvy throughout King’s formative years, Ryan Dunn sprinkles some welcome laughter into this maudlin scene with a (purposely) bad attempt at vocalizing.
I’d forgotten that Carole had Aretha’s 1967 hit in her hip pocket when she cut Tapestry out on the West Coast in 1971, so I found myself suddenly suppressing sobs when “A Natural Woman” began. Here it felt very right that Sidwell’s arrangement brought added vocalists and brass to beef up the simplicity of King’s version — and freed Schroeder to narrow the gap between Carole and the Queen of Soul with some fervent belting.
Marty Wolff’s simple two-story set design, with four wide strips of stained-glass paneling running vertically upstage in front of the eight-piece band led by Ellen Robison from the keyboard, needs only JP Woodey’s lighting to give it a rockin’ modernistic zing.
Lisa Blanton’s choreography is devout doo-wop, most praiseworthy for how well the groups stay in sync, and Chelsea Retalic likely cranked out between 75 and 100 costumes for this large cast — all of them on point, from the sleekest to the grungiest.
And the wigs! The only misfire here, among dozens of triumphant coifs (several for Schroeder) was the oceanic profusion of waves that perched on Joe McCourt’s head as Gerry Goffin, making him virtually unrecognizable.
McCourt, a musical mainstay in Charlotte since his 2008 debut as the lead in Godspell, has suavity to spare and, in contrast with Southwick’s quirky neuroses as Barry, gets a nice and bumpy character curve as the only troubled soul we see.
As for the Black doo-woppers … my, oh my! By bringing Nehemiah Lawson aboard to take over “Some Kind of Wonderful” from Schroeder and McCourt and then to bring him back again and again to sing “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway,” the latter one of Weil & Mann’s best, Ensley and Robison signal that they have no plans of dissing The Drifters.
Meanwhile, two lead singers are embedded among Ensley’s Shirelles. As Shirley Owens, the Shirelle who denigrates “Will You Still Love Me” as “too country” before fronting the breakthrough single (first Billboard #1 for an African-American girls’ group), Germôna Sharp gets a chance to show that her acting chops are as strong as her singing skills.
Shortly afterwards, Raven Monroe emerges from the backup Shirelles to become Little Eva and ignite “The Loco-Motion.” Until then, she moonlights as King’s babysitter during the leading lady’s brief marriage to the restless Goffin.
There’s a formulaic circle to McGrath’s storytelling that’s not at all displeasing, starting and ending with King as a star behind a grand piano singing a song from Tapestry. We flash back to her youth in Brooklyn and eventually touch down at Carnegie Hall, surely a kind of Jerusalem for a humble Jewish girl.
Alongside her at the beginning and at the end is Carol Weiner as Genie Klein, King’s mother. Both were abandoned by her no-good father, steeled by adversity. Along the way to Carnegie, Weiner peeps in with a couple of overprotective warnings, a few salty quips, and a proud Mama’s lie.
If McGrath can embellish a good story, why shouldn’t she?
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