Remember the ’70s? If you’re a college student, probably not. I don’t care how large your vinyl collection is or how many midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” you’ve been to; you’re 20 just like the rest of us.
But whether you were actually alive during the decade or just like to pretend you were, there’s no doubt that this era of American history, with its high hair, bell-bottom jeans and avocado-colored kitchen appliances, had a sizable, lasting impact on our culture. This impact is brought back to life in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which just wrapped up its weekend-long run at The Lincoln Center on Feb. 29.
It’s a fun, light, feel-good production that — while not necessarily thought-provoking or soul-wrenching — succeeds at its mission to show the audience a good time without succumbing to the kind of trite cutesiness that characterizes other shallow ABBA-belting, go-go-booted jukebox musicals of its type.”
The show is a jazzy, soulful tribute to one of the decade’s most celebrated icons — the incomparable, never to be out-doo-whopped Carole King — following her meteoric rise from a starry-eyed 16-year-old writing songs in her Brooklyn apartment, to a contracted songwriter at the Brill Building in Manhattan, to the bonafide legend she is celebrated as today. It’s complete with all the humor, heartache and sheer heart that accompanied her along the way.
It’s a fun, light, feel-good production that — while not necessarily thought-provoking or soul-wrenching — succeeds at its mission to show the audience a good time without succumbing to the kind of trite cutesiness that characterizes other shallow ABBA-belting, go-go-booted jukebox musicals of its type (not to name any names).
What makes the show work is its refusal to shy away from the drama of King’s life or the complexity of her relationship with husband Gerry Goffin — that relationship being what forms the main crux of the story. Instead, the musical is willing to lean into the difficulty of the couple’s tumultuous romance without allowing its bleakness to smother the show as a whole.
This balance is achieved largely through the stunning performances given by leading actors Kennedy Caughell (as King) and James D. Gish (as Goffin). While the script itself may be hokey, these actors’ portrayals are deep and layered, turning characters who could have easily been played off as pandering, stock personalities into empathetic, three-dimensional individuals.
Caughell is the most obvious example of this. Her portrayal of King carries a deep emotional weight that shines through on stage. She doesn’t reduce the singer-songwriter to a mere doormat — a tortured soul who simply stays with the abusive and troubled Goffin out of a blind, misguided belief that she can change him.
Rather, she roots King’s decision to stay with the man for as long as she does in a deep, persistent, active and self-motivated effort to help rediscover the person he once was — the person she fell in love with.
Every line she delivers, she delivers with a distinct air of intentionality: a longing not simply for Goffin himself — she does not make Goffin the center of King’s life and personality — nor for her career as a musical artist (a marketable character objective in the modern theater world). This, in turn, makes her decision to ultimately leave Goffin quite satisfying.
(Caughell) doesn’t reduce King to a mere doormat — a tortured soul who simply stays with the abusive and troubled Goffin out of some blind, misguided belief that she can change him. Rather, she roots King’s decision to stay with the man for as long as she does in a deep, persistent faith that he’ll rediscover the person he once was — the person she fell in love with.”
This is a tricky balance to strike, especially in a show designed to be the kind of light crowd-pleaser that “Beautiful” is, where so much of the energy comes from its adherence to the standard, corny, nostalgic jukebox musical formula.
In this setting, the kind of nuance Caughell delivers can easily throw an audience off balance if it’s not fully committed to or properly executed. However, Caughell is able to make this commitment, imbuing what could have been nothing more than a casual, shallow, frivolous, escapist waste of an hour and a half with heart, authenticity and humanity.
Gish, for his part, does the same in his portrayal of Goffin. He doesn’t turn the character into a one-dimensional, self-obsessed husband, but rather a man who simply is past the point of recognizing or believing in the person Caughell’s King is seeking to help him understand. Thus, the couple’s conflict doesn’t come off as cynical or contrived or melodramatic.
It’s this dynamic that makes “Beautiful” such a memorable piece of theater. It doesn’t dampen its central relationship for the sake of pandering to its audience — for the sake of giving it the cathartic thrill of King’s benevolence triumphing over Goffin’s malice. Nor does it turn the lovers into sappy, hopeless romantics. It’s able to stay grounded in something meaningful and memorable while also showing its audience a good time.
Scotty Powell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @scottysseus.