Jukebox musicals are a mainstay of American musical theatre. They have built-in recognizable hit songs and instant fan appeal. But they’re hard to get right, requiring a good book to incorporate the songs into a cohesive story. Even more challenging is the bio-musical jukebox where they try to tell the artist’s life story with their own songs. There are so many, “Tina”, “MJ”, “Motown”, “Jersey Boys” to name a few. And their pitfall is usually twofold and both require the series to have a good editor. First, the book is not strong or interesting enough. And second, and most importantly, they try to cram too many songs from the artist’s songbook into the show, to the point that there’s no time for full numbers, just snippets of the songs. If we came to see the show, chances are we’re already fans of the music, so we want to hear the songs. The whole song. But in these cases, once they get you excited to hear a certain song, they’ve already moved on to another. Then came “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, which is currently playing for a short time at the Paramount Theater. It’s that rare unicorn of a show that manages to get it right on every count, leaving audiences not only more aware of the life of their favorite performer, but also having been happily treated to the compendium of songs of said performer, in this case, the legendary Carole King (played with great heart by Sara Shepherd).
If you think you don’t know King’s songs, you’re probably wrong. Even before she emerged as an incredible performer and recording artist, she was quite a prolific successful songwriter, churning out hit after hit with her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin (played by voice velvet James D. Gish), for artists like The Shirelles, The Drifters and Janelle Woods with hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Up on the Roof” and “One Fine Day”. Starting to sell her songs at just 16, she and Goffin quickly proved to be a force to be reckoned with. And their drive was largely due to their rivalry with best friends and fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (played by the lovable Sara King and Ryan Farnsworth) who penned hits such as “On Broadway” and “You ‘ve Lost this love felling’. And it’s this rivalry and friendship, along with King’s rocky marriage and superstar career that makes this story so gripping.
With Doug McGrath’s exceptional book, we not only manage to hit the high points of King’s life and stay on perfect beat under the direction of Marc Bruni, but they manage to incorporate the songs in such a way that they are more than a list. Unlike other bio-musicals that rely on the trope of “and then we sang this song, then we sang this song”, “Beautiful” manages to connect each song to a pivotal moment in their lives and to create a (pardon the obvious pun) beautiful touchstone of the emotion behind the lyrics relating to the events surrounding its creation. It’s certainly not an easy feat, but McGrath and Bruni seem to pull it off with ease.
Another thing for the show is the variety of voices inside. Most bio-musicals are stuck with one band or performer singing the majority of the hits, but here, since we’re dealing with songwriters, we also get some amazing performances from others playing those other legendary bands. Torrey Linder, Jacquez Linder-Long, Julian Malone and Ben Toomer make wonderful Drifters with their signature voices and moves well represented. Likewise, Rosharra Francis, Jamary A. Gil, Danielle Herbert and Nazarria Workman deliver fantastic numbers as Shirelles with Francis later returning as Janelle Woods for “One Fine Day”. But my personal favorite moment would have to go to Nick Moulton and Paul Scanlan giving an amazing rendition of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as the Righteous Brothers. Congratulations to both of you, but especially to Scanlan whose deep, sultry voice gave me shivers as soon as he opened his mouth.
But this show is about King and his life and Sheperd is absolutely up to the task of carrying us through. Her presence makes her instantly likeable and relatable, and she gives us a fabulous arc as we watch the ups and downs of King’s world. Plus, her voice is absolutely on point, making each number a giveaway that builds on the last. So, at the end of the show, we are completely in the palm of his hand. Gish, as a wandering husband, manages to convey this troubled man with sympathy and heart, and once again his voice will make you swoon. King and Farnsworth couldn’t be more adorable as rival songwriters with their on-again, off-again relationship and Mann’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” was a total spectacle. And I have to mention Rachel Coloff as the mother of King Genie Klein and Matt Loehr as the band’s producer Don Kirshner who provided a ton of wonderful comic relief without ever being overdone or assaulted.
“Beautiful” is simply a rocking good time from start to finish and one of the few bio-musicals that nails it perfectly. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at Paramount a Beautiful YAY+. And with the show only here for a few more performances, you should rush to catch it.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” performs at Paramount through April 9. For tickets or information, visit the Seattle Theater Group online at www.stgpresents.org.