Saturday, March 9, 2024

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

For their third regional premiere in a row, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) is presenting Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. It's interesting that it follows on the heels of their regional premiere of Jersey Boys, because that 2006 Tony-winning bio-musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons set the standard for the bio-musical and spawned a bunch more of the like, of which Beautiful (premiering in 2014), is one of the better ones. You can definitely see some similarity in structure between the two shows, both feature recognizable hits from the mid 20th Century, and both are really more like plays with music than musicals (most of songs are sung in context - in a studio or at a concert). As Artistic Director Michael Brindisi says, they went from the Jersey boys to the Brooklyn girl. And this first #TCTheater production is big, bold, and yes - beautiful. With an outrageously talented ensemble, super smooth transitions between the many mini scenes and songs, and unstoppable momentum that makes each act of this 2.5-hour-long musical feel like 20 minutes, Beautiful is not to be missed. It's playing through the end of September so you have plenty of time to get out to the Western metro for this celebration of one of the most prolific songwriters of 20th Century American popular music.

"You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart." The opening lyrics of prolific songwriter Carole King's "Beautiful" paint a pretty picture, but as we learn in the musical, her real life wasn't always pretty. Pregnant and married at 17, divorced by 26, she still managed to become one of the most successful songwriters of the 20th Century with such well-known hits as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "You've Got a Friend," and "Natural Woman." Beautiful - The Carole King Musical tells Carole's life story as she finds her own voice, culminating in her Grammy-winning 1971 solo album Tapestry.* This is where the musical ends, but Carole's life and career continues to this day at 82 years young.

Gerry (Shad Hanley) and Carole (Monet Sabel)
in the early years (photo by Dan Norman)
We meet Carole sometime in the late '50s when the teenager begins writing songs at the famous "song factory" at 1650 Broadway (near the Brill Building). She marries her boyfriend and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin when she finds herself pregnant, and they score their first big hit with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" that allows them to quit their day jobs, move to the suburbs, and write songs full time (it's a musical spanning over a decade, so things happen quickly). But Gerry has a wandering eye and a restless spirit, and makes Carole feel like she's not enough. With the support of friends and songwriting rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, she moves to L.A. with her two daughters and decides to record her own songs, resulting in Tapestry and a concert at Carnegie Hall (and the obligatory apology and closure with her ex). And of course, plenty of familiar songs are peppered throughout the story, over a dozen of Carole's, as well as some by Weil and Mann, each one a crowd-pleaser.*

For the first time in his 30+ years at CDT, Michael Brindisi is working with a co-director - his daughter Cat Brindisi. I had the pleasure of interviewing the father-daughter directing duo for the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' podcast (subscribe to "Twin Cities Theater Chat" on your favorite podcast app to be notified when that episode is released), and it sounded like they were working very well together, each bringing their own strengths (Michael in staging, Cat in working with actors). Judging by the results, it's a successful partnership indeed. The show is crisply staged, with great momentum and flow. The story covers a couple of decades on both coasts, the first act including many performances of songs both by the songwriters and the singers who made them famous, the pieces seamlessly woven together with movement and music. There is much humor, as well as emotional moments, all beautifully packaged in the soundtrack of a generation that these four featured songwriters had such a hand in shaping.

"You've Got a Friend" - Cynthia (Shinah Hey), Carole (Monet Sabel),
Don (Michael Gruber), and Barry (Alan Bach, photo by Dan Norman)
This large ensemble cast is overflowing with talent, and the nice thing about this show is that many of them get a chance to shine. But first, this is the Carole King story, and CDT has found a gem of a Carole. NYC-based Monet Sabel is making her #TCTheater debut, but is very familiar with this show; she was a swing for the Broadway production and played the role of Carole on tour and in other regional productions. Her experience with the role is evident in her effortlessness in being Carole and singing her songs. Her voice is warm and rich, and she sings with a depth of emotions, from light-hearted and fun to gut-wrenching drama. She's surrounded by an abundance of local talent, several of them making their CDT debuts. The only thing keeping Gerry from being a completely unlikeable character, as he cheats on and belittles Carole, is Shad Hanley's charm, making it almost understandable why she doesn't kick him to the curb sooner. Shinah Hey and Alan Bach are absolutely delightful as Cynthia and Barry, with a fun chemistry and fantastically unique voices. The always great Kim Kivens is bringing her warmth and humor to the CDT stage for the first time as Carole's mom, and Michael Gruber is lovely as music publisher Don Kirshner. Every single person in the ensemble makes the most of their role(s) small or large, especially CDT fave Tony Vierling and Adam Moen with a showstopping number from The Righteous Brothers, newcomer Quinn Lorez with lush vocals as the lead singer of The Shirelles, and superstar-in-the-making John Jamison II threatening to steal the show every time he opens his mouth as the lead singer of The Drifters.

Katemarie Andrews as Little Eva with the ensemble
(photo by Dan Norman)
Even though I was sitting at a table (with my fellow TCTBers) near the back, it still felt like an intimate show that we were all experiencing together. The wide CDT stage is dominated by three circular platforms with stairs, creating a mid-Century mod feel. Period furniture is smoothly moved on and off stage as we change location, including pianos both large and small, which Monet as Carole actually plays on a few occasions. Other times it's Music Director Andy Kust on keys leading the fab ten-piece band visible above the stage, playing songs so much a part of our culture that it's difficult not to sing along. The music and the costumes take us through the '50s and '60s and into the '70s, from full skirts and bobby socks to groovy patterned sheath dresses, with wigs that match the style of the era (love it when curly girl Carole finally "lets her hair do what it wants to do"). Lighting design helps with the transitions and setting a tone, and extends from the onstage panels with different colored shapes and into the audience. I saw the show on International Women's Day, and host extraordinaire Nancy Nelson pointed out that most of the creative team is comprised of women, from co-director Cat Brindisi to scenic designer Nayna Ramey, costume designer Barb Portinga, lighting designer Sue Ellen Berger, and resident choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson, with some smooth and sharp choreography reminiscent of girl groups and boy groups of the era.

John Jamison II and The Drifters (photo by Dan Norman)
Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's regional premiere of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is entirely satisfying not just in the fun and familiar soundtrack of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, fabulously performed by the ensemble, but also in the dynamic telling of Carole King's life and work, or at least a part of it. Head to CDT, the best dinner theater around, to see Beautiful this spring, summer, or into September, and then get ready for a holiday favorite - White Christmas.

With my fellow Twin Cities Theater Bloggers at the fun photo booth in the lobby. Watch for their reviews at Aisle Say Twin CitiesPlay Off the PageLife in RevueThe Stages of MN, and Lettered in Theatre.