‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,’ at Paper Mill Playhouse, revisits a magical time

beautiful Carole King musical review


Kyra Kennedy stars in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, through July 3.

In 2021, when Carole King entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the second time — she was already in as a songwriter, but was now being honored as a performer — Taylor Swift gave the induction speech. And she said that her parents taught her “the basic truths of life as they saw it: that you should treat people the way you want to be treated, that you must believe that you can achieve whatever you want to in life, and that Carole King is the greatest songwriter of all time.”

Certainly nothing in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”— which is currently being presented at The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, with direction by Casey Hushion (whose recent Paper Mill credits include “Clue,” “Murder on the Orient Express” and “A Jolly Holiday: Celebrating Disney’s Broadway Hits”) — would make anyone think any differently.

Sure, all four main characters in the jukebox musical — King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin, and another songwriting couple, Barry Mann (music) and Cynthia Weil (lyrics) — live in a seemingly perpetual state of inspiration, able to churn out hit songs at will. In one segment, both are in a race to create, overnight, a song that music publisher Don Kirshner can give to The Shirelles, to record. King and Goffin come up with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and are deemed the winners, Mann & Weil lose the competition with “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” though that, too, became a big hit (for The Crystals.)

But King is the central character. And it is King, of course, who transcends the songwriter-for-hire label and becomes a major star in her own right, singing her own truth in her own voice, as the ’60s turn into the ’70s. (We had already seen, earlier in the evening, the ’50s — epitomized by King’s mother, who tells her “Girls don’t write music, they teach it” — turn into the ’60s.)


Marrick Smith and Kyra Kennedy in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

With a book by Douglas McGrath, “Beautiful” had a successful Broadway run from 2014 to 2019, and it remains mightily entertaining in its Paper Mill incarnation. Don’t look to it, though, for an accurate representation of what really happened. There are lots of anachronisms, and a few fictional characters, and Kirshner is given such a prominent role in the story it seems like he is meant to represent the entire music industry.

But the vocal performances are uniformly strong. Kyra Kennedy, as King, rises to the challenge of making “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” the soul-stirring anthem it demands to be, and Jacob Ben-Shmuel, as Mann, captures the liberating moment when Mann & Weil jump on the rock bandwagon with “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Ensemble members Kevin Hack and Seth Eliser, briefly playing The Righteous Brothers, are transcendent on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” and four other ensemble members (Tavis Cunningham, Prentiss E. Mouton, Jay Owens and Isaiah Reynolds) make for an electrifying Drifters on “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway” — though their dynamic stage moves are more reminiscent of The Temptations, just like this musical’s Shirelles present themselves onstage more like The Supremes.

A clever, feverish mashup of breezy late-’50s hits such as The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak” and “Poison Ivy,” Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” and Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid” is a lot of fun, and also gives a good sense of the world that Goffin & King and Mann & Weil emerged from.

Kirshner (Bryan Fenkart) doesn’t sing — except for a little bit on the sentimental “You’ve Got a Friend” — and is portrayed as a bit of a con artist, but mostly a mensch. King’s mother Genie (Suzanne Grodner) is little than a Jewish mother stereotype, loving but overbearing.


Samantha Massell and Jacob Ben-Shmuel in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”

In terms of characterization, though, I was most disappointed with how Mann came off. The character is written as a whiny hypochondriac, and McGrath uses this for comic relief a few times too many. You wonder what Weil (Samantha Massell) — who is smart, sassy, stubbornly independent and basically his opposite — sees in him, beyond his ability to write indelible melodies for her lyrics.

Meanwhile, Goffin (Marrick Smith) is the play’s mystery man. He’s a brooding pop genius who yearns to be a more serious artist, or at least socially relevant in the Hippie Era. (He achieves this, to some degree, by writing the lyrics to the Monkees hit “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”) He is also a possible drug user (it’s hinted at) and a serial philanderer whose marriage to the down-to-earth, unpretentious King seems doomed.

As Goffin’s life falls apart, King blossoms, and the timid young woman who had fretted, “I didn’t realize there would be so many people here” — when auditioning in front of an audience of three, at the start of the play — ends it by headlining at Carnegie Hall.

McGrath doesn’t dwell on the point, but just as King was triumphing with Tapestry, Goffin, as well as Mann and Weil, were facing quite an uncertain future. The Singer-Songwriter Era has begun, bands were self-contained units with no need for outside songwriters, and Tin Pan Alley was a shadow of its former self. As Weil had said, earlier in the second act, “There’s no one to write for anymore.”

Still, the period this musical covers — the late ’50s to the early ’70s — was magical for both songwriting teams, and putting all this timeless music together in this way was a stroke of genius.

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn will present “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” through July 3. Visit papermill.org.

Click HERE to hear the original versions of all the songs in the musical.


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