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REVIEW: Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”: Paced to Perfection, Wanting in Interpretation

Disclaimer: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical ran at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre from June 7-30 as their final production of the 23/24 season. Though the run is now over so you've missed a chance to see this production there, I thought this critique might still be worth sharing. If you are interested in seeing a different interpretation of the same show, check out Saugatuck Center for the Arts' production running through July 14th. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


CAST OF CIVIC THEATRE'S "BEAUTIFUL"


This funny jukebox musical recounts the early years of Carole King’s life in a way that packs in as many hit songs as possible. Grand Rapids Civic Theatre presented a talented cast with the pipes to give life to the hits pumping out of the music factory at 1650 Broadway—all whilst expertly dancing around the inherent sexism and racism of the times.


First things first, leading actress Alyssa Garcia Bauer understood the assignment, or as the kids would say, ‘she ate’ in her portrayal of Carole King. Garcia Bauer brought piano prowess, soothing vocals and an undeniable likability to the stage. In a standout performance of “One Fine Day”, a tearful Garcia Bauer commands the eyes and ears of the room after husband Gerry Goffin, convincingly played by Alex Weiss, breaks the news that he wants more than a friendship with Janelle Woods portrayed by Autumn Curry—who also sings down on the first take of “One Fine Day”. And while Carole’s heartbreak was palpable in this scene, my mind remained fixed on Janelle Woods, a fictional character that the playwright, Douglas McGrath, didn’t bother to develop or humanize. I mused over Gerry’s frustration with Woods ‘holding back’ in front of a white crowd. Shoobie-doobie-doo-wopping around the stark realities of being a Black singer in the Jim Crow North, mute on the imbalance of power between a white songwriter engaging in an extramarital affair with a Black artist, and having said artist perform in front of their wife, as was the case in the final scene on Act I.


In this production, the Black characters of the show quite literally had to dance around the topic of racism—shout out to Brandon Shaffer on hair design—it was a marvel that those wigs endured Torrey Thomas’ energetic choreography night after night! This show provided an understanding of the difference between a “Black show” and a show with Black people in it. With very few speaking lines and physically demanding musical numbers, Black acts, like the Drifters, (led by

Starshawn Cook—note the word ‘Star’ is appropriately embedded) and the Shirelles (led by breathy Danah Montgomery, who also delighted crowds with the effortless “Uptown” in Act II) were subjugated to be no more than their performances.


The Shirelles

The costumes aligned well enough with the times, and the combination of fast dancing + shiny suits and dresses of the Drifters and Shirelles served as a useful distraction from the reality of racial inequity that characterized the lived experience of Black groups during that time. For it was on the backs of such acts that Carole, Gerry, Cynthia, Barry, Donny and many others got to live second and third lives with tremendous financial success. I enjoyed a very well-done “Locomotion” by Alisha Brown as Little Eva, but it’s less fun when juxtaposed with the fact that she lived much of her life penniless and in obscurity. I suppose that my biggest issue is that merely having Black characters only makes a play diverse, not inclusive. I didn’t always know if I wanted to be in the room, after all it’s a white story told from a very pale perspective. Even still, as Blackfolk do, they sparkled the stage when given the opportunity. I especially appreciated any

second Lucille, Don Kirshner’s hilarious secretary perfected by Ruth Ann Molenaar was on stage, something as slight as an “Mm” or side-eye from her made me feel more at home.

Ruth Ann Molenaar

The production offered a deep bench of supporting actors, like the quick witted Cynthia Weil, deliciously portrayed by Emily Diener (a friend I saw the show with said Emily’s voice “gave her goosebumps”). Crowds were pleasantly amused by the back-and-forth of Cynthia and Barry, played by the very funny Joey Parks. And lest we forget to acknowledge the solid comedic performances from Julie Schrott as Genie “That’s All I’m Sayin’” Klein as the archetypal overbearing Jewish mother, and Morgan Foster as fast-talking yet lovable music producer Don Kirshner, who both buoyed Carole on her journey from an unsure teenager with big dreams to realizing herself as an acclaimed singer-songwriter and musician.


All social critiques aside, I saw the show 7 times (full disclosure, my partner was in the cast) and the pacing had me thoroughly entertained every minute; every movement was intentional down to the meticulous movement of the couches. But that entertainment comes at a cost (a slightly discounted cost thanks to pay what you can Wednesdays at Civic). If you want a great musical + an average biography, I recommend you check out the Saugatuck Center for the Arts’ production while you still can.


  • T.A.

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2 comentários


Aaminah Shakur
Aaminah Shakur
12 de jul.

I really appreciate this thoughtful review. It gives wonderful credit where due to excellent performances and production while still looking critically at interpretation and the harm that poor interpretation choices in presenting art can cause. Interpretation choices impact the performers and the audience (and, in this case, also the actual people whose lives it is based on, including the unnamed people who are dehumanized by having been turned into one-dimensional fictional composites, like Janelle Woods.) I understand the idea of this specific style of musical is to focus on the music mostly, but it does a disservice to the music also, as well as history and the person it claims to be telling the story of (King) to whitewash, mansplain,…

Curtir

This is such a great review. It beautifully puts into words my exact thoughts and reflections during and after the show.

Curtir
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