And just like that, with the coming of July, the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB) is over (except for the encore extensions). For us, that means a return to our typical mix of shows (both large and small) and other live performance events. First up: Beautiful — The Carole King Musical (FB) at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). Beautiful purports to tell the story of singer-songwriter Carole King (FB, Wiki) through her music.
Watching the show Saturday night — which was excellent and very entertaining — my mind mused about the potential of this show in the regional and amateur markets, and drifted to other similar shows I have seen. I thought about 1978’s Ain’t Misbehavin’, 1981’s Sophisticated Ladies, 1995’s Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and 2005’s Jersey Boys. Each show has had a successful after life, and each essentially captured the music of a generation: Ain’t Misbehavin’ captured Fats Waller’s music of the 1930s; Sophisticated Ladies captured Duke Ellington’s music of the 1950s; Smokey Joe’s captured Lieber and Stoller’s music of the 1950s; and Jersey captured Franki Valli’s music of the 1960s. All focused on what were essentially singer-songwriters; that is, people who primarily played their own music. Musicals that focused more on the cover artist have never gained the same traction — can you think of a successful Broadway musical that has addressed Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley (neither of whom were writing their own music), or even the rock writing teams (about the closest are Beatlemania or The Who’s Tommy, and I don’t think anyone has addressed the Rolling Stones).
But focusing on the evolution of the singer-songwriter does capture the audience; often, such a focus captures the music of a generation. That was clear to me at Beautiful, which captures much of the catalog of Carole King — in particular, the songs of the 1960s and her emergence as a singer-songwriter in the Laurel Canyon scene of the early 1970s (which also gave us folks like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell). Never mind the fact that, if you do a little research, you discover that the story presented plays a little loose with the chronology (especially the order in which the songs were written and became hits). It does capture the people and the key personalities; it does show the pain behind the stories. In doing so, it does attempt to imbue particular songs with a meaning that, perhaps, they only have in hindsight.
More importantly, the story it tells is one of empowerment. We see a daughter of the 1940s and 1950s — a daughter who believed her voice was dictated by her looks and her husband — take control of her life. The audience reaction when Carole King decided that she was the right person to sing her songs, and that she was the one who could dictate how they sound was transformative. It demonstrated the importance of controlling your own destiny to one’s self-worth.
So what if the first song that King wrote and sold was 1958’s “The Right Girl”, as opposed to 1962’s “It Might as Well Rain Until September”. So what if 1959’s response, “Oh Neal” wasn’t mentioned in relation to Sedaka’s “Oh Carol”. So what if the story stops back in 1971 at the Carnegie Hall Concert. — essentially shortly after the success of Tapestry, with no mention of her first album, Writer. So what if there is no mention of the other three husbands. This is theatre, where life and music is rearranged to fit the story to be told. Oh, and that music, that music. It is the music of a generation (and, I must admit, it is my generation — Tapestry is one of my favorite albums.
It should be noted that King did not write the book for the musical — that task fell to Douglas McGrath. McGrath’s story focused primarily on the tumultuous relationship between King and her first husband, Gerry Goffin; the competitive relationship between Goffin and King and their contemporary songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.; their relationship with producer Don Kirshner; and the growth in confidence and self-assertiveness in King with her transition from background composer to confident singer-songwriter. Originally, King did not want to see her story replayed on the Broadway stage; it was far too painful for her to relive. Eventually, her daughter convinced her to let the story be told, and she gave the show her blessing. She finally saw the full show after it opened.
I’m not going to detail the story as presented in the musical. There’s a good synopsis on the Beautiful Wikipedia page, and I’ll let you go there. Suffice it to say that this is a jukebox musical in the same sense as the ones I listed at the start: songs are presented in historical context and somewhat historical order, but only rarely are they used to illustrate a character’s feelings or mood (unlike songs in a traditional book musical).
Reading the above you might get the impression that I felt the modifications to history hurt the presentation. They didn’t; most of the audience was probably not aware of them. The audience (and this audience member) heard the music and was instantly transported to the good time. The story as told flowed smoothly, and the performances were fantastic. How close they were to the originals I can’t say, but they were very enjoyable.
The performances in this show were top notch. In the lead position was Abby Mueller (FB) as Carole King (and the regulations state that we must note that her sister, Jesse, originated the role on Broadway). Mueller was a fantastic King, capturing the voice and the character well. She also appeared to actually be playing the piano, at least in those scenes with the grand piano (as opposed to the upright, where they hid the hands on the keyboard).
Playing off Mueller’s King were her songwriting contemporaries: Liam Tobin (FB) as her husband, Gerry Goffin; Becky Gulsvig† (FB) as Cynthia Weil; and Ben Fankhauser (FB) as Barry Mann. All presented good characterizations of their characters and did remarkable on thier songs. I was particularly taken by Gulsvig’s personality as it came across in her performance.
Rounding out the main named characters were Suzanne Grodner (FB) as Genie Klein, Carole’s mother and Curt Bouril† (FB) as Don Kirshner. Both are primarily character, as opposed to singing roles. In both cases, the actors did a great job of creating appropriate characters.
[†: At our performance. I must note that this show had the most “date-ranged” cast I’ve seen in a while; it is unclear whether those who were off returned to the ensemble in unnamed roles, or were just not present on stage. I’ll indicate where appropriate date ranged roles. † will indicated if they played the role at our performance on 7/2.]
In many ways, what made this show was the ensemble, who not only played unnamed background singers and characters, but rotated in and out as major performers of the 1960s. The ensemble consisted of Ashley Blanchet (FB) [Ensemble; Shirelle; Little Eva; “One Fine Day” backup singer], Sarah Bockel (FB) [Ensemble; Betty (6/22-6/30, 7/5-7/17); u/s Carole, Genie]; Andrew Brewer (FB) [Ensemble; Don Kirshner (7/3-7/7); Righteous Brother† (6/22-7/2, 7/8-7/17); Nick† (6/22-7/2, 7/18-7/17); u/s Gerry, Don]; Britney Coleman (FB) [Ensemble; Shirelle; “One Fine Day” backup singer; “Uptown” singer]; Rebecca E. Covington (FB) [Ensemble; Shirelle; Janelle Woods]; Josh A. Dawson (FB) [Ensemble; Drifter]; John Michael Dias (FB) [Ensemble; Neil Sedaka; Righteous Brother; Lou Adler; u/s Barry]; Sidney Dupont (FB) [Swing]; Ryan Farnsworth (FB) [Swing; u/s Barry]; Matt Faucher (FB) [Swing; Don Kirshner (7/8-7/10); Righteous Brother (7/3-7/7); Nick (7/3-7/7); u/s Gerry, Don], Rosharra Francis (FB) [Swing; Lucille (7/3)]; Jay McKenzie (FB) [Ensemble; Drifter]; Alaina Mills [Swing; Betty† (7/1-7/3); Cynthia Weil (7/7); Marilyn Wald (6/25-6/30); u/s Carole, Cynthia, Genie; Dance Captain]; Paris Nix (FB) [Ensemble; Drifter]; Noah J. Ricketts (FB) [Ensemble; Drifter]; Ximone Rose (FB) [Swing; Lucille (7/5-7/10); Marilyn Wald† (7/1-7/3)]; Salisha Thomas (FB) [Ensemble; Lucille† (6/22-7/2, 7/12-7/17); Shirelle; “One Fine Day” backup singer]; DeLaney Westfall (FB) [Ensemble; Marilyn Wald (6/22-6/24, 7/5-7/17); u/s Cynthia]. Whew. A few performances I wanted to note: I like Ashley Blanchet’s Little Eve — quite a bit of spunk and a nice costume transition. I also liked Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias’ Righteous Brothers — it was interesting seeing the same scene we saw earlier this year from the other side of the story.
Turning to the music and movement side of the equation: The choreography was by Josh Prince, and seemed to reflect the early 1960s style of dance well. Other than dance as part of musical groups, there wasn’t much Broadway style dancing. The composers and lyricists were mentioned previously (i.e., Goffin / King, Mann / Weil). Music use was by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing (FB). Orchestrations, vocal, and music arrangements were by Steve Sidwell. Music supervision and additional music arrangements were by Jason Howland (FB). The music director was Susan Draus (FB), and the Music coordinator was John Miller (FB). The band consisted of Susan Draus (FB) as conductor and on keys; Nick Williams (FB) as assistant conductor and also on keys; Shannon Ford (FB) on drums; Eric Stockton (FB) on first guitar; Dick Mitchell on alto sax, flute, tenor sax, and alto flute; John Yoakum (FB) on tenor sax, baritone sax, clarinet, and flute; Wayne Bergeron (FB) on trumpet and flugelhorn; Andy Martin (FB) on trombone and bass trombone; Trey Henry (FB) on bass and electric bass; Paul Viapiano (FB) on guitar and second acoustic guitar, Brian Kilgore (FB) on percussion, David Witham (FB) on third keyboard. Christian Regul (FB) was the keyboard sub, and Brian Miller (who I discovered happens to be married to Carol Burnett) was the orchestra contractor. If you follow those links you’ll see why the music was so good: they got some top notch musicians for the show — both local and on tour. I’ll note that it also looked like the lead, Abby Mueller (FB), was actually playing the grand piano.
The scenic design by Derek McLane was simple but complicated — an elaborate background, frames, drops, risers, etc, that all made extensive use of LED lighting to get a multitude of colors, but providing minimal sense of place except for hints of set pieces — a sofa here, a table there, a tape deck here, a barstool there. Peter Kaczorowski‘s lighting design did well to establish and support the mood. Brian Ronan (FB)’s sound design was clear but loud; those with sensitive ears should bring foam earplugs. Alejo Vietti (FB)’s costume design was clever and seemed period appropriate; I particularly noted Little Eva’s transformation. Wig and hair design was by Charles G. LaPointe (FB), with make-up design by Joe Dulude II (FB). As with the costumes, the wigs seemed very era appropriate. Rounding out the production credits: Casting – Stephen Kopel, CSA; Production Stage Manager – Eric Sprosty (FB); Production Management – Juniper Street Productions, Inc. (FB) Stage Manager – Nicole Olson (FB).
Beautiful — The Carole King Musical (FB) continues at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) through July 17. Tickets are available through the Pantages website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. This is a very enjoyable musical, well worth seeing.
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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and I plan to renew my mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). Past subscriptions have included The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: July brings us back to conventional theatre and performance. Yesterday was the Western Corps Connection (FB) in Riverside. The weekend of July 9 brings Grey Gardens at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The weekend of July 15 may bring a Fringe encore performance of Thirteen’s Spring, as well as The Little Mermaid at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). The end of July gets busy, with Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) on July 23, Operaworks (FB) Opera Re-Constructed at CSUN on July 24 (pending ticketing), and a mid-week Hollywood Bowl (FB) concert of Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Copeland on July 28, and … currently nothing for the weekend. August is a bit more open in terms of theatre. The first weekend just has a Jethawks game on Sunday; the second weekend has a hold for a Bar Mitzvah. The third weekend brings another event from the wonderful counter-cultural orchestra, Muse/ique (FB) — American/Rhapsody — a celebration of George Gershwin. Late August sees us looking at shows down San Diego/Escondido for one weekend. The best of the shows available — or at least the most interesting — is Titanic from Moonlight Stages. September returns to conventional theatre. The first weekend has a HOLD for Calendar Girls at The Group Rep (FB). The second weekend may be another Muse/ique (FB) event — Summer/Time, a reimagined retelling of Porgy and Bess. The third weekend has a HOLD for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at the Mark Taper Forum (FB). The last weekend is yet another HOLD; this time, for The Hunchback of Notre Dame at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts (FB).
Continuing the look ahead: October is a bit more booked. The first weekend has a HOLD for Dear World at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) and Our Town at Actors Co-op (FB), as well as the start of the High Holy Days. The second weekend has another Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) HOLD: this time for Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. The third weekend has yet another VPAC HOLD for An Evening with Kelli O’Hara on Friday, as well as tickets for Evita at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on Saturday. The following weekend brings Turn of the Screw at Actors Co-op (FB) on October 22 and the new Tumbleweed Festival (FB) on October 23. The last weekend of October brings Linden Waddell’s Hello Again, The Songs of Allen Sherman at Temple Ahavat Shalom (a joint fundraiser for MoTAS and Sisterhood). Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, October is also the North Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). November is still in the planning stages, but we know it will include Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Hollywood Pantages (FB); a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum (FB) [excuse me, “Southern California Railway Museum”]; the Nottingham Festival (FB); and possibly Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.