A phenomenal Beautiful at Marriott

Photo by Liz Lauren

There’s something magical and transcendent about a handful of albums in pop culture. It’s almost certain that “Thriller,” “Rumours,” or “Born in the U.S.A.” come to mind quickly. Still, Carole King’s 1971 “Tapestry,” which sold 25 million copies, holds its place firmly as one of the all-time greats. Douglas McGrath’s musical adaptation of King’s life & career, Beautiful, the Carole King Musical opens a magnificent portal to the past. Directed by Jessica Fisch, the staging of this outstanding production at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire is the feel-good experience we all need in our lives!

Beautiful opens at the point in Carole’s journey where most music-lovers begin their relationship with her; 1971. “Tapestry” is recorded and released and is a smash hit. Carole is seated at a baby grand piano, playing Carnegie Hall. The lights are low and the mood is intimate, and there’s an air of sweetness, gratitude, and victory. Carole is expertly portrayed by Kaitlyn Davis, a role that she previously performed in the national tour of the production. Davis’ voice is fascinating and unique, with a heavy dose of New York in her accent, perfect for a full incarnation of King. Her styling is spot-on, with her curls cascading from a middle part and a modest, flowy dress completing the down-to-earth look. The halo above the 360 degree stage is adorned with a wave of vertical white panels, offering a sophisticated abstraction of piano keys. Davis serenades us with “So Far Away” as the circular stage rotates her. You can hear a pin drop.

The scene breaks away and launches us back to 1958 in King’s childhood home. Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is impressive, centered around a cleverly crafted piano that transforms from a baby grand to an upright in a matter of seconds for all to see. The transition is made even more fun with precision choreography by Christopher Windom. Additional stage light exposes two more sets of abstract piano keys, positioned high above opposing sides of the audience. Vintage video scenes of 1950s New York play on the white panels; here we meet 16-year-old Carole, fresh-faced with a ponytail and structured bangs, and her single mother, Genie (Janet Ulrich Brooks). Reminiscent of Tracy and Edna Turnblad of Hairspray, the relationship of teenage girl and mother is chock-full of hilarious banter. Brooks has impeccable comedic timing arguing with Carole, who is preparing to try and sell her first song. Davis’ vocals purposefully revert to a youthful, far-less-polished Carole as she rehearses her audition for Don Kirshner (Lawrence Grimm) at the legendary offices at 1650 Broadway. Her ability to swing between uneven, intentionally unrehearsed-sounding vocals and elegant performance styling is stellar. 

Kirshner’s world at 1650 Broadway is a Billboard hit-making machine, an we’re treated to a medley of familiar 50s pop hits by artists like The Drifters and The Shirelles. Carole is also introduced to Gerry Goffin (Andrew Mueller), an aspiring playwright: a musical partnership and a romance are born. An emotional duet of “Some Kind of Wonderful” is profoundly breathtaking, as Davis’ and Mueller’s vocals are powerful and filled with young love. 

Piercing the stage with brazen confidence and on a mission for success, Cynthia Weil (Erica Stephan) crosses paths with Carole and Gerry, delighting the room and the audience with her alternate lyrics to “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Stephan is charming and exhilarating as Cynthia, which comes as no surprise to anyone who caught her as Sally Bowles in Porchlight’s Cabaret recently. She is sizzling, with massive vocals and dynamite acting. Director Jessica Fisch rounded out the lead casting brilliantly with her choice of Justin Albinder as Cynthia Weil’s song-writing and romantic partner, Barry Mann. Albinder and Stephan exude incredible chemistry and harmony. Carole and Gerry’s’ song-writing partnership goes toe-to-toe with Cynthia and Barry’s, and although heavy competition is brewing, friendship is growing even stronger. 

A steady string of hits gives both couples confidence in their careers, but the rush to marriage and parenthood is taking a fast toll on Carole and Gerry. Carole leans into her new friendship with Cynthia and Barry, and her music, as she struggles with Gerry’s impending infidelity. A moving and impassioned performance of “One Fine Day” is a home run by Davis. The entire scene is emotionally-charged as we watch Carole watching Gerry fall for another woman. The lead vocals toggle between Carole and Janelle Woods (Daryn Whitney Harrell), who is performing Carole’s song on national television. Davis and Harrell are magnificent as they share the song, but not the meaning.

In an attempt to save their marriage, Carole and Gerry move to the suburbs. An impressive set transition and a familiar Monkees hit, “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and we’re whisked away from the city and into their new cracker box home. The double rotating floor is superbly utilized in conjunction with the scenery change and masterfully choreographed. The transitional styling into the 60s from Sully Ratke (costume design) and Ray Sanchez (wig design) is playful and thoroughly decade-chic. Sadly though, Carole and Gerry can’t fix their marriage with new furniture. 

Through heartache and pain, Carole finds her true voice. In one of her toughest decisions yet, she leaves her marriage and her friends to begin anew on the west coast. She gives Cynthia and Barry the only gift that’s suited for the moment; a song. In a tear-jerking scene, the three friends gather around the piano and sing “You’ve Got a Friend.” In a show full of outstanding vocal numbers, this number shines with its soaring harmonies and heartwarming lyrics. The champion of her own story, Carole finds success in a new era for the music industry. Songwriters are singing their own songs, and her story is a beautiful tapestry of love, pain, resilience, and self-assurance. 

Beautiful is expertly crafted and the live orchestra, directed by Christopher Sargent, is sensational!  Fisch’s staging of this work of art is a must-see production. Closing out Marriott Theatre’s 2023 season, Beautiful is now playing in Lincolnshire through December 31. Performance times vary. Ticket prices start at $55. Call for student, senior, and military discounts. Free parking is available at all performances. To reserve tickets, call The Marriott Theatre Box Office at 847.634.0200 or go to tickets.marriotttheatre.com. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *