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Review Tue Dec 08 2015

Just Pretty: Broadway in Chicago's Production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Beautiful: the Carol King Musical

Must-see: If you like '60s pop rock, or Carole King's music or life story
Maybe-see: If you liked Jersey Boys
Don't-see: If you're a musical snob or are looking for a tour de force performance

Broadway in Chicago's production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Oriental Theatre through February 21. The Tony Award winning musical written by Douglas McGrath features the greatest hits of King's songwriting and performing career from "Some Kind of Wonderful," and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," to "You've Got a Friend" and "Natural Woman." Director Marc Bruni's production is almost worth attending for the songlist alone.

The first act opens with King as a precocious 17-year-old college student. The plot moves at a breakneck pace, but so did King's career. She's married at 17, has a child, lands a songwriting job, has a bunch of Billboard Top 100 Hits, and then her marriage falls apart. Perhaps what was most interesting about the first act and the first half of the second act, was the way "Beautiful" shows King longing to be a suburban wife despite her talent and potential for fame. We've all seen the artistic ingenue figure yearning to defy conventions, and "Beautiful" resists that mold. Abby Mueller's King clings to her conventional dreams, forgiving Liam Tobin's sleazy Goffin, and reining him into a comfortable life raising a family in the suburbs.

Thankfully for Carole King fans, she did not get her wish. In the second act, her marriage breaks into pieces, and a performer is born. In the best scene of Broadway in Chicago's performance, Mueller's King sobs and belts out "One Fine Day" ("Oooh, one fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl") after being confronted with her husband's infidelity. This was the only moment in the performance where I experienced the brief contagion that art can cause, the goosebumps, chills, tears, or feeling it can create. The storyline and music could have and really should have affected me more, but it didn't. The performers seemed to be holding back. In some of the upbeat fun '60s pop songs, they were just mildly energetic. In the more emotive songs, they lacked emotion. Other than Mueller's singing "One Fine Day," there weren't any bring-down-the-house, showstopping, gut soaring performances despite the impressive soundtrack.

The pacing and distribution of stage time to events in King's life was another reason the performance didn't leave me a sobbing mess or smiling, crying fool. I wanted to see more of her struggle and transitional phase. The musical spends so long covering the happier phase of her marriage, creating almost a pattern for how each of her '60s hits were written (King likes it, Goffin thinks it's no good, the audience knows that it is actually great and Goffin just lacks confidence). Once her marriage ends, the plot kicks into overdrive. Before we know it we're in the '70s, Carole King is famous and she's playing Carnegie Hall. The performance lasts over two and a half hours, and yet there wasn't nearly enough time spent on King's transition from behind-the-scenes writer and wife to star-performer. It's unclear whether this is the fault of Marc Bruni's direction, or Douglas McGrath's book. I'm inclined to think that McGrath's book simply emphasized the happier phase of King's marriage and skimped on scenes of her becoming a solo feminine artist in the '70s which is supposedly what the musical is about.

No criticism can be given to Derek McLane's set design. The set for 1650 Broadway, King's first office, is perfect--impressive and realistic looking without being ostentatious and distracting. Josh Prince's choreography is clean and simple even in the pop music-dominated scenes of the 1960s. Alejo Vietti's costume design feels fun and splashy as it ought to. Becky Gulsvig's Cynthia Weil has the most enviable outfits, while Abby Mueller's King looks like a Jewish grandma for the majority of the play. When Mueller wears a flattering, floor-dusting blue and white dress in the last scene, it feels like a butterfly finally released from a cocoon of frump. Charles LaPointe's wig and hair design had an even more dramatic and evident presence throughout the musical.

Despite the production's flaws, I had a great time hearing Carole King's music live with a full pit of musicians playing. As long as it's not the only play you'll be attending this year, it might be worth its ticket value, which runs between $30 and $140. Buy them here. You can see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., until Feb. 21.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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