“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is a quite funny “and-then-I-wrote” show

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The cast dancing on stage.
Mikayla White (center) with Jana Djenne Jackson, Danielle J. Summons, Prentiss E. Mouton, Tavis Cunningham, Isaiah Reynolds, Jay Owens, and Tavia Rivée in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
A woman is sitting at a piano and playing and a man is standing behind the piano singing.
Marrick Smith and Kyra Kennedy in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical © (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn closes out its season with Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, a standard mini-biography of the life and career of singer-songwriter Carole King. It is what I call an “and then I wrote” show in which the songs — many of which were written by King, or King and her husband Gerry Goffin, or the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — appear in mostly chronological order to transport the audience back to the era in and for which they were written. Only a few songs, when they appear, reflect on what’s going on in the lives of their creators.

The plot follows Carole King (Kyra Kennedy), neé Carol Klein, from her early days as a songwriting college student living at home with her mother Genie (Suzanne Grodner). She sells her first song to producer Don Kirshner (Bryan Fenkart) and meets aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Marrick Smith).

King and Goffin become partners and eventually marry, along the way becoming friends with whip-smart lyricist Cynthia Weil (Samantha Massell) and hypochondriac composer Barry Mann (Jacob Ben-Shmuel), another songwriting team. Their friendly competition results in a number of hits by both teams for such singers and groups as Little Eva, the Drifters, the Shirelles, and the Righteous Brothers. The story veers into melodrama when King and Goffin’s marriage is shattered. Kirshner, Weil, and Mann stand by King, encouraging her to begin writing and performing her songs herself, leading to a new chapter in King’s career.

The show, directed by Casey Hushion with a book by Douglas McGrath, succeeds best when at its funniest. Massell and Ben-Shmuel play off well against each other as Mann pursues his romantic interest in Weil while she resists his advances. And any line given to Suzanne Grodner’s Genie elicits loud laughter from the audience. Unfortunately, the more serious scenes in Beautiful do not rise to the level of the comedy, relying more on conventional romance versus career cliches.

The score contains a plethora of familiar songs. Two of the most effective in terms of rhythm and imagery are Goffin’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, a satiric indictment of suburban conformist life, and Mann’s “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” an electric-guitar-driven cry of despair for alienated middle-class youth. The songs “On Broadway” and “Up on the Roof” capture the energy and style of the Drifters (played by Travis Cunningham, Prentiss E. Mouton, Jay Owens, and Isaiah Reynolds), while the Righteous Brothers (played by Seth Eliser and Kevin Hack) do justice to “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”.

Unfortunately, it seems director Hushion did not help the Shirelles (Tavia Rivée, Jana Djenne Jackson, Danielle J. Summons, and Mikayla White) capture the seductive plaintiveness of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. Nor did Hushion or choreographer Jennifer Werner do much for Little Eva’s (White, in a dual role) “Locomotion”, barely even using steps reminiscent of the “dance craze” which the song was created to promote. An introduction to the frenetic fervor of Kirshner’s hit factory, “1650 Broadway Medley” combined disjointed snippets of a handful of songs to create a high-speed, high-energy comic introduction to the music biz of the era.

In the end, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is designed to be a feel-good evening in the theater, and it does manage to succeed in that. For those looking for undemanding entertainment, I recommend a trip to Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse to see Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through July 3, 2024. For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.