At one point in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” the 16-year-old version of Carole King goes to 1650 Broadway in New York with a friend and hopes to sell one of her numbers. “This place is like a factory,” she tells her worried Brooklyn mother, “they just make songs.”
In Jessica Fisch’s superbly directed new production at the Marriott Theatre, the most artistic show in years at this venerable music house, the circular stage suddenly fills with young people in the daily thrall of making and selling music. It’s a richly detailed piece of staging, no doubt by choreographer Christopher Windom, and it tops Fisch’s similarly witty rendition of “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” Both of these emotionally powerful numbers are examples of how this new Marriott approach enhances director Marc Bruni’s original Broadway staging. Bruni did an amazing job, so that’s not faint praise.
Fisch’s production has some outstanding merits.
#1 Kaitlyn Davis (as King) is a vulnerable, unpretentious actress who rightly focuses on the essential King paradox: She always wanted a stable family, which was more than the elusive fame and acclaim, but she didn’t get it. Unless I was occasionally cheated, Davis played the entire piano live, which was not true on Broadway and as rare as a sympathetic record company executive in jukebox musicals.
In #2, Andrew Mueller digs deeper into his role as King’s husband, Gerry Goffin. Mueller is the brother of this show’s original Broadway star, Jessie Mueller, and is also the sister of Abby Mueller, who took over the role on Broadway after Jessie. You could say the Evanston Muellers knew they were “Nice” and I guess all Andrew needed to know was to pick up the phone to know he had a tipping friend. He’s pretty spectacular on this part, turning what could have been a cardboard villain into a deep and moving dive into a troubled and dysfunctional psyche, even suggesting that this songwriting combination helps produce such perfection.
Fisch also cast real Chicago-style actors in character roles, such as Lawrence Grimm, the gruff but patriarchal song broker of 1650 Broadway, and Janet Ulrich Brooks as Carole’s mother. Fisch clearly understood that not everyone needed to sing, especially with the brilliant Erica Stephan (sadly late now) playing Cynthia Weil and the melodically searing Justin Albinder as Barry Mann.
Watching “Beautiful” for the fourth time (the first three were the original 2014 staging), I was reminded of how well book writer Douglas McGrath hit all the tender notes you need to hit for his core audience of King fans, but did so gently. a wit and verve that none of the ensuing biographical jokes quite succeed in. Part of the secret sauce here is the size of the community and the show’s emphasis on all the Black artists who recorded the rightfully famous songs of King and Goffin and Weil and Mann. You’ll encounter plenty of musical delights from the 1960s and 1970s and plenty of opportunities for fun miniatures; It’s all captured here by people like Melanie Brezill.
Finally, Marriott had the courage to raise the volume of his oft-suppressed band. The show works wonders when it needs to showcase the song “(You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman)” and scenic designer Andrew Boyce created a sleek and elegant set with a moving turntable and expansive video backdrops: you’ll believe you’re in Carnegie Hall when the moment comes , but this production is just as at home in the tiny house in Brooklyn where one of America’s greatest songwriters hails from.
Over the last few years, we’ve gotten the feeling that Marriott is stuck for another decade, perhaps understandably so given its core veteran base. But the truth is, today’s theater-going grays grew up on “It Might Rain Until September,” not “Try to Remember Some Kind of September.” And “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” It’s a good question at any age.
Marriott is trying to figure out what Broadway has accomplished, too. And with a director at the helm who can cast great singers but focuses on acting, combining Chicago’s musical theater and direct play talent pool, he can do all kinds of exciting things. After a difficult year or two, this new season in Lincolnshire has already delivered a top-notch “Gypsy” that is both powerful and moving, and now, if I’m ever a fan of this show or that artist.
Once King’s fans find this production and realize how much he brings to the table, it will be one of Marriott’s biggest hits.
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Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” (4 stars)
When: until December 31
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Working time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Tickets: $55-$73 at 847-634-0200 and www.marriotttheatre.com