See Paramount’s “Beautiful,” the unmissable Carole King musical, before it’s too late

Photo by Liz Lauren

Here is my honest reaction to Paramount Theatre’s production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical: I have never before, to my recollection, teared up more times during one show, and I have also never before gone online immediately afterward and downloaded several albums featuring its music. And today, three days later, I still can’t get it out of my head. I sincerely think that Beautiful is easily the best of the jukebox musicals and that this production is stellar in every possible way.

What sets Beautiful apart: it tells a compelling, often very funny, sometimes painful, and true story of a beloved singer and her troubled marriage while taking us on a joy ride through the history of pop music in the 1960s. King and husband Gerry Goffin penned many of the songs that make up my memories of that decade, including “The Locomotion,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “Up On The Roof” among many others. And that was before she turned her pain from the dissolution of their relationship into one of the best-selling albums of the 70s, Tapestry.

Beautiful features all of these songs and many more. If you thought King’s career began with “It’s Too Late,” this show will throw you for a loop and rewire your entire understanding of the music of that era.

Not only that, but it also devotes lots of time to the story of King and Goffin’s biggest songwriting rivals and best friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (“You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) as it journeys from the “Be Bop a Lula” late 50s to the dawn of rock and roll. And Paramount’s gifted cast, under the direction of Jim Corti and Johanna McKenzie Miller and choreographed by Kenny Ingram, propels us along that journey with outstanding vocals and consistently strong acting along with letter-perfect recreations of 60s pop groups like The Drifters and The Shirelles.

What a joyful ride!

Of course, much of this depends upon the casting, and Tiffany Topol’s King is brilliant: we watch her grow from a self-conscious high schooler to a journeyman songwriter to a world-famous singer performing in Carnegie Hall, and her evolution is completely believable. From her surprise and joy at gaining the attention of C.J. Blaine Eldred’s studly Goffin at school to her sometimes rocky relationship with her mother (Laura T. Fisher in a great comic turn) to the development of her friendship with Rebecca Hurd’s Weil all the way to that bookended Carnegie Hall concert, Topol is so good (and her voice so perfect) that I could swear I was watching the actual Carole King. (And listening to those albums later did nothing to disabuse me of that notion.)

Hurd and Christopher Kale Jones (as Barry Mann) are hilarious as the two talented songwriters who so frequently find themselves running second in a two-team race with King and Goffin for the favor of Ian Paul Custer’s irrepressible Donny Kirshner, yet somehow the foursome’s friendship just gets stronger. It’s plain that there is jealousy, but it is also plain that they all root for each other, which is another true development that provides surprising depth to all of them. And Custer, too, makes his character more than a one-dimensional plot device: despite Kirshner’s (mostly feigned) detached aspect, he earns the emotional connections he ends up making with these artists.

Since so much of Beautiful is performed in intimate small group settings, it wouldn’t be hard for the cavernous Paramount to swallow it up, but the designers (Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set, Greg Hofmann’s lights, and Adam Rosenthal’s sound), along with careful blocking from the directors, prevent that from happening. And the 60s pop group performances are so impressive thanks, in addition to the actors, to Theresa Ham’s glittering, nostalgic costumes and Katie Cordt’s wigs, hair, and makeup. These, along with Ingram’s choreography, transport us back to that bygone era. One of the joys of watching this show is the way it so frequently morphs from demos of the songs in Kirshner’s office to full-blown American Bandstand-like performances by iconic 60s artists. (In addition to the aforementioned acts, Little Eva, played by Ariana Burks, has a blast leading a huge ensemble in “The Locomotion” and the calmer Righteous Brothers, played by Luke Nowakowski and Matt Thinnes, are every bit as phenomenal.)

Maybe this play moves me so much because of nostalgia; I admit that several of my moments of semi-swallowed verklempt-ness were the result of the show taking me back to the first time I ever heard these songs, many of which were prominent in the soundtrack of my youth. But a lot of it is simply my reaction to the characters that this cast renders with such honesty and sympathy. Even Goffin, who is as close to an antagonist as this play gets due to the way he treats King, is provided with three-dimensional depth and sincerity by Eldred; there are no villains here, as King’s Carnegie backstage reconciliation with her ex-husband attests. These are simply a lot of (flawed and very real) humans trying to create music together, and playwright Douglas McGrath wisely refrained from attempting to add any artificial drama to his play. With iconic characters such as these, he didn’t need it. The story is “beautiful” all by itself.

Now please pardon me while I once again listen to “”Tapestry.”

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is now playing at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E Galena Blvd, Aurora, until June 16th. Performance times vary; check the website at Paramount Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at

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