Sultry sounds, smooth moves, and sumptuous outfits are all hallmarks of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical directed by Jessica Fisch at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire Illinois. This family-friendly musical is presented just in time for the holiday season. The musical is the life story of popular singer/songwriter Carole King, played with heartfelt sincerity by Kaitlyn Davis. We follow King’s whirlwind romance with her husband, lyricist Gerry Goffin (Andrew Mueller) and their chart-topping rivalry with frenemies Cynthia Weil (Erica Stephan) and Barry Mann (Justin Albinder).
Beautiful is aesthetically gorgeous, and I spent much of the beginning of the play admiring the design. The set by Andrew Boyce places the audience in the round, which is lovely when Carole King sings to us from a baby grand on a turntable. The stage is surrounded on all sides by paneling that mimics the acoustic walls you’d find in a studio, or the keys on a piano, depending on how it is lit by Jesse Klug’s dynamic lighting. The costumes, by Sully Ratke, send us on a journey through the decades of music with King, and seasons of style. The fringe is honestly to die for in this show, as are the bangs, blow outs, and high top fades created by wig designer Ray Sanchez.
The sound design is so slick I even wondered if the musical was using tracks, because I couldn’t see the orchestra for the entirety of the show, and the sound design (Michael Daly) was so smooth. They are sleekly tucked in full view of the actors, where a stage manager’s booth would usually be in a show, just above the audience and I found this so impressive when conductor Christopher Sargent took his bow on opening night.
Beautiful has a bit of a slow start, which is why I had so much time to take in the sights, but I was hardly bored. It’s a two and a half hour musical including intermission, and it originated on Broadway. Why does this matter? Unlike most of the new play market, which encourages a story to take only the time it needs to develop – no more and no less, Broadway shows typically require a length of 2+ hours to ensure your ticket is worth the price. Since Marriott is quite a distance from the city, this style of show works well for them, but I think it helps to expect this going in!
Kaitlyn Davis gives a wonderful performance as Carole King, her voice is sturdy and strong, navigating King’s musical catalog with an impressive ease. Davis has played the role before in the touring production of Beautiful. The structure of the show is such that the title role is a lot like Cinderella – you can be extraordinary, or you can settle for being a foil for the spectacles that surround you. Davis goes the extra mile to ensure King stays at the center of her own show, which is a mighty feat both in her real life and in the play.
Gerry Goffin, her husband and songwriting partner is played by Andrew Mueller with such earnest and tragic affect you almost pity him for marrying her at sixteen and holding her back from her potential in so many ways. It’s actually a testament to the direction that as an audience member I was able to get past this moment, even given the time period. He lives with her and her mom, but still. Janet Ulrich Brooks who plays Carole’s mother, is offering us comedic relief up and down this show as one of two non-singing characters and I’m just going to be blunt: if I had to pick two actors to watch speechify during a musical, it would be Janet Ulrich Brooks and Lawrence Grimm. They were so endearing and funny, and added a lot of heart to the show. Lawrence Grimm plays record mogul Don Kirshner, who sold songs to popular groups like The Drifters and the Shirelles.
The show activates for me when Carole arrives at Kirshner’s song factory, and the musical finally becomes, well, integrated. It is here we first meet the performers who will play the rival songwriters, and the all-black groups mentioned above. The swell of ensemble voices does change the energy of the musical, and suddenly we’re off on an exciting creative journey in the Big Apple. There were some familiar faces recently seen in The Gospel at Colonus, including Juwon Tyrel Perry, who is wanted by the heavens for stealing the voice of an angel. Even though I’m now very familiar with Perry’s tremendous talent, it is arresting every time. Ariana Burks is holding down the top line of every harmony, glittering as she flawlessly sings the solo for “Uptown”
The other performers in these super groups brought the heat as well – literally in the case of Janelle Woods, played by Daryn Whitney Harrell. Harrell portrays the ultimate it-girl with a golden voice, and as she poses for the camera with Gerry Goffin’s admiration, we know our girl Carole is in trouble. Alexis J “why do a musical without her?” Roston is thriving as a character actor playing Kirshner’s assistant, and also as the fabulous lead of the Shirelles, her powerful alto cascading over a cover of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”
As this song plays, I cannot help but consider how little these artists probably made from these songs. My father Victor Fields covered “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” on his debut album, Promise. He is an independent musician in large part because of the exploitation groups like The Drifters experienced at the hands of the music industry. Two of The Drifters’ writers and producers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, wrote in their own words for Rolling Stone that “this wasn’t necessarily a situation where guys were getting rich off the royalties.”
Artists in those days could make as little as a penny a record. Today, an artist makes $0.005 to $.01 cents per Spotify or Apple stream. I think if this had been given more attention in the musical’s script I wouldn’t have thought about it so much, but we see a lot of time with Carole’s humanity and from The Drifters and The Shirelles we mostly get the performance segments with the exception of a couple of lines. Glossing it over with glamour makes it more apparent.
Naiqui Macabroad is in the The Drifters, serving up boyband realness with delightful vocals. Melanie Brezill boogies down as Little Eva, inspiring the audience to sing along as we “do the locomotion,” a particularly fun number in the show! Christian Denzel Bufford and Yasir Muhammad share solos as The Drifters, Bufford’s baritone buzzes in your heartspace as he sings, and Muhammad is a deeply charming crooner. Adam Lasalle and Ben Mayne performed the most earnest power ballad I have ever seen as a white rock duo called The Righteous Brothers. I could feel the wind running through their hair on top of whatever mountain they were standing on during that performance, and they barely moved. I can’t lie, it was incredibly bizarre, but they really sold it and the vocals were immaculate.
The tension and heart of the show for me, came from the relationships between the chosen family, which is lovely content for the holidays. Lawrence Grimm’s Don Kirshner comes off as a gruff fairy godfather to two crazy kids (King and Goffin) who are trying to start a family and get their big shot. When Kirshner tries to set King up with lyricist Cynthia Weil, King remains loyal to her husband, and Weil ends up paired with Barry Mann (Justin Albinder). Albinder has one of the best vocal solos in the entire show just playing in their living room. Albinder can sing down, and the only thing that makes it better is Erica Stephan’s wise-cracking, free-spirited Cynthia Weil as his partner. They share some really fun duets, and the competition but unconditional love between the two songwriting couples really drives Beautiful.
It’s a complex show, much like Carole King’s life, but I think it does her story justice. I am glad I got to see this performance, Marriott is not very accessible to me as a Chicago resident, and Rescripted doesn’t receive invitations. I am not sure I would have attended had a friend not designed the show, which would have been a shame. These really are some of the best performers Chicago has to offer, and I am happy to say it’s worth the journey – take a Beautiful trip to Lincolnshire with friends and family!
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs at Marriott Theatre until Dec 31st.
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Bias Alert: I was invited to this opening by the wig designer, Ray Sanchez. Christian Bufford is an occasional contributor to Rescripted, they last wrote for us in March 2023.
Director – Jessica Fisch
Choreographer – Christopher Windom
Book – Douglas McGrath
Words and Music – Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
Orchestrations, Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements – Steve Sidwell
Scenic Design – Andrew Boyce
Costume Design – Sully Ratke
Lighting Design – Jesse Klug
Sound Design – Michael Daly
Media Design – Anthony Churchill
Properties Design – Sally Zack
Wig Designer – Ray Sanchez
Conductor – Christopher Sargent
Production Manager – Meg Love
Dialect Coach – Adam Goldstein
Music Director & Orchestral Reductions – Ryan T. Nelson
Assistant Director – Nora Geffen
Assistant Choregrapher – Leigh Scheffler
Intimacy Choreographer – Katie Johannigman
Stage Manager – Jessica Banaszak
Dance Captain – Christian Denzel Bufford
Intimacy Captain – Erica Stephan
Photography – Liz Lauren
CAST (in order of appearance)
Carole King – Kaitlyn Davis
Genie Klein – Janet Ulrich Brooks
Betty – Alina Taber
Neil Sedaka – Ben Mayne
Lucille – Alexis J Roston
Don Kirshner – Lawrence Grimm
Gerry Goffin – Andrew Mueller
The Drifters – Christian Denzel Bufford, Naiqui Macabroad, Yasir Muhammad, Juwon Tyrel Perry
Cynthia Weil – Erica Stephan
Barry Mann – Justin Albinder
The Shirelles – Melanie Brezill, Ariana Burks, Daryn Whitney Harrell, Alexis J Roston
Janelle Woods – Daryn Whitney Harell
Little Eva – Melanie Brezill
The Righteous Brothers – Adam LaSalle & Ben Mayne
“One Fine Day” Backup Singers – Ariana Burks, Melanie Brezill, Alexis J Roston
Nick – Adam LaSalle
Marilyn Wald – Maya Rowe
“Uptown” Singer – Ariana Burks
Lou Adler – Ben Mayne
Swings – Dan Gold, Michael Earvin Martin, Aisha Sugou
Outside Covers – Caron Buinis, Kayla Kennedy