Regional Reviews: San Diego
After a prologue, set in Carole's (Abby Mueller) 1971 Carnegie Hall Concert, the plot flashbacks to Brooklyn, 1958. The young gifted college student tries to create radio friendly music. Once she falls for the equally talented and charismatic Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), they start to collaborate on numerous hit songs like "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof," and "The Locomotion."
Key to the success of the production is the casting of Carole. Mueller (the sister of the Tony-winning star who originated the role, Jessie Mueller) goes through a complex arc at the San Diego Civic Theatre, playing the tunesmith at different periods of her career. Everything from her singing voice to her costumes, by Alejo Vietti, gradually changes throughout the evening. Her vocals intentionally become more expressive, which adds to her character growth.
Carole becomes a stronger "Natural Woman," and Gerry becomes a more troubled man. Tobin, along with writer, Douglas McGrath, depicts Carole's husband as a far from ideal soul mate. His mental illness impacts their eventual marriage and Gerry makes unforgivable choices. His psychological breakdown is sad for all involved.
Though Beautiful is focused on Carole, a crucial subplot involves another hit songwriting team, who happen to be her closest friends, Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser). The duo is responsible for popular singles including "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "Walking in the Rain," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." Gulsvig and Fankhauser's chemistry is equally funny and charming even before they fall in love.
Director, Marc Bruni, transitions between conversations and musical numbers seamlessly. Allowing Bruni to have smooth scene changes is set designer, Derek McLane. He creates a variety of locations from Queens College to Don Kirshner's (Curt Bouril) influential Rock n' Roll office. One particularly well staged number is "1650 Broadway Medley" where writers sing snippets of their famous creations like "Splish Splash," "Yakety Yak," and "Love Potion No. 9." Bruni takes advantage of the large theatre space with plenty happening in the building.
Several artists contribute to segments starring singers including The Righteous Brothers (Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias), Little Eva (Ashley Blanchet), and The Shirelles (Blanchet, Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, and Salisha Thomas). Brewer and Dias' rendition of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" has the aurora of an arena concert. Backstage vocalists aided by Brian Ronan's miking, Peter Kaczorowski's pop appropriate lighting, the singers, and a 12-member orchestra led by music director/conductor/keyboardist, Susan Draus, all add to a goosebump inducing melody.
While not heavy on dance, Josh Prince provides choreography that captures the spirit of different crooners. Prince's movement for "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "The Locomotion" feel true to the groove of The Drifters (Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Jay McKenzie, and Noah J. Ricketts) and Little Eva.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plot resonates due to the emotional and entertaining components of McGrath's book. Carole, and the people closest to her, have an East Coast sense of humor. Sometimes their clever sarcasm is a defense mechanism that buffers reactions to tense situations and their reality.
Two dramatic moments in Act II struck a chord with audiences on opening night. A monologue from Carole's mom, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner), and the end of a confrontation between Carole and Gerry were met with applause from viewers. That is a sign of just how invested theatregoers became by watching Carole develop as a person.
One of the moving themes of the night is the positive influence of music. When Carole is struggling, she is able to move forward because of her grit, hard work, and the love of her craft.
It might be a little last minute to buy tickets, but those that have the time should try to see this touching and uplifting production downtown. On the plus side, San Diegans planning a trip to Manhattan can still see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on the Great White Way.
Broadway/San Diego presents Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through August 7, 2016. Performs through Saturday at 1100 3rd Avenue. Tickets start at $27.00 and be purchased online at www.broadwaysd.com or by phone at 1-619-564-3000.