The jukebox musical is a wild card in the world of theater.
Some jukebox musicals -- in which the musical selections are hits culled from a particular legacy -- suffer from contrivance and superficiality steeped in a desire to cash in on the popularity of the songs. In these instances, like in the movie "Across the Universe" (featuring the songs of The Beatles) and to a more problematic extent in Green Day's musical "American Idiot," it feels as if the plots are being forcibly stuffed into the songs.
The more effective and ultimately more engaging jukebox musicals are those in which the songs are inextricably linked to the story. One might even say the songs become interwoven parts in the "tapestry" of the plot. This was certainly the case in the movie-turned-musical "Once," which the Rochester Broadway Theatre League presented in 2014.
The RBTL presents this successful formula again with "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," which began its Rochester run at the Auditorium Theatre on Tuesday, March 8.
"Beautiful" charts the artistic and personal trajectory of Carole King from a spunky and determined 16-year-old aspiring songwriter through her substantial commercial success and her rise to prominence as a performer of her own songs on the critically acclaimed 1971 album "Tapestry."
Perhaps needless to say, the songs of "Beautiful" are pretty much perfect: expertly crafted, direct, intelligent without being opaque, and cohesive as a collection. The selections are comprised of a fairly even balance between songs that King wrote with and without her first husband, the lyricist Gerry Goffin, and compositions by another songwriting team -- composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil.
And therein lies the heart of the musical's plot: The story is not merely about one artist's personal growth and creative ingenuity. At its core, "Beautiful" is story of King and Goffin, two artists whose mutual reliance on one another as muses helped to fuel some of the most enduring songs of the 1960's, and whose tumultuous romance undoubtedly informed the tinge of melancholy that permeates the consummate emotional erudition of "Tapestry."
The ensemble number "1650 Broadway Medley" sets the tone early with a nostalgic trip through classics from early rock 'n' roll. All the singers in the cast imbue the songs with a fresh vibrancy that transcends the stylistic era in which they were written, performing with technical polish but raw emotionality. Among the supporting musical roles, Josh A. Dawson, Jay McKenzie, Paris Nix, and Noah J. Ricketts shine with particular brilliance as The Drifters in the sparkling "Some Kind of Wonderful" and the smooth and sultry "On Broadway."
In the starring role, Rebecca LaChance possesses a bright, ebullient voice that is well-matched for the driven optimism of King. A singer-songwriter herself, LaChance was the understudy to Jessie Mueller's Carole King in the original Broadway production of "Beautiful."
Liam Tobin is seductive yet stormy as the charismatic but restless Gerry Goffin, and the pair has a sweet and believable chemistry that isn't forced or overwrought. During "Take Good Care of My Baby," Tobin's voice cuts with an especially resonant, winning timbre. By the middle of Act I with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," LaChance fully embodies the musical essence of King and her signature down-to-earth soulfulness.
Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann are portrayed skillfully by Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser, respectively, as the songwriting team with which King and Goffin develop a healthy competition and ensuing friendship. Gulsvig and Fankhauser achieve a rare warmth and intimacy during the duet "Walking in the Rain."
The songs aren't incidental, but instead indispensable in articulating the emotional perspective of the characters. Keep your ears perked for two exquisite highlights in particular: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
In Act II, selections like "It's Too Late" and the reprise of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" take on renewed poignancy in the biographical context of King and Goffin's marriage. In the former song, LaChance is bit punchy on the volume, and the connective tissue of the phrasing gets lost as a result, but the actress expertly appropriates King's distinct singing style.
For the most part, LaChance's musical impersonation is excellent, but there are moments -- as in a touching rendition of "You've Got a Friend" -- where she breaks vocal character slightly.
Whereas Act I feels like an introduction into King's world, Act II is where we meet the woman behind the music, a woman whose strength of character elevates her above every obstacle. It seemed fitting that on International Women's Day, the audience was shown female empowerment personified.
Replete with the timeless music of Carole King, energetic performances from LaChance, Tobin, and company, and a clever, playful script from Douglas McGrath, "Beautiful" is highly engaging and exceedingly fun, a point driven home by a curtain call that turned into a raucous concert singalong with "I Feel the Earth Move."