By Rita J. Egan
When a bio-musical is a success, audience members leave inspired and feeling as if they traveled back in time. That’s precisely what the John W. Engeman Theater’s cast and crew have accomplished for theatergoers with their production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which opened Sept. 14.
New York theater lovers first experienced the production on Broadway at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre from January 2014 to October 2019. The jukebox musical, with book by Douglas McGrath, explores Carole King’s earlier musical and life experiences woven into the beautiful tapestry of this prolific songwriter and singer’s career.
The production takes the audience on a musical journey from Carole’s first step into the entertainment world in 1958, when at 16 she sold her first song to publisher Don Kirshner, to her career-transforming album Tapestry.
While working for Kirshner, Carole meets lyricist Gerry Goffin at Queens College and collaborates with him professionally. The pair become romantically involved and young parents while creating hits for groups such as The Drifters and The Shirelles. During their partnership, Carole and Gerry enjoy a friendly competition with the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Unfortunately, Carole and Gerry’s marriage is rocky, leading to divorce. However, the split propels the songwriter to branch out and sing her own music.
The Engeman production is masterfully directed by Paul Stancato, which is apparent in the actors’ fabulous portrayals of the iconic personalities and how they smoothly transition from one scene to another.
Stephanie Lynne Mason does an extraordinary job portraying Carole as a humble, modest songwriter who lacks confidence in her looks and singing talents. However, as the musical progresses, Mason seamlessly evolves into a more confident Carole, ready to take on Carnegie Hall.
As Act I closes, Mason’s rendition of “One Fine Day,” after the songwriter finds out her husband hasn’t been faithful, nails the heartbreak Carole must have felt when she heard the news. Mason demonstrates that depth again during the reprise of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” during the second act, and toward the end of the show, she has everyone feeling as if they are sitting in Carnegie Hall listening to a Grammy Award-winning star.
Jack Cahill-Lemme perfectly captures Gerry’s turmoil as he deals with depression and is so convincing as a womanizer that it’s difficult not to get upset at him when Gerry breaks Carole’s heart. As for his singing, his delivery of “Pleasant Valley Sunday” in Act II sounds even better than the Monkees’ version.
Sarah Ellis as Cynthia is everything you would expect from a successful songwriter — fun, flirty and sexy. From her first number, “Happy Days/Cynthia,” audience members know they will be in for a treat with Ellis on stage.
Noah Berry is perfect as the hypochondriac Barry, who falls in love with Cynthia. He delivers an energized and impressive “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” in the second act. The musical is also filled with some funny lines, and Ellis and Berry skillfully lighten the mood.
Playing Carole’s mother, Genie Klein, is Laura Leigh Carroll, who portrays her with just the right amount of strength and love. Devon Goffman is perfect in his portrayal of Don Kirshner, acting as a respected patriarch who balances motivating his ensemble of songwriters with caring about them as people.
A review of the Engeman’s production of Beautiful wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the ensemble members. Early in Act 1, the ensemble treats the audience to “1650 Broadway Medley.” This number is just a preview of what’s in store for the audience from the talented singers and dancers as most of them hit the stage later to sing pop classics, stealing the spotlight from the main characters.
Cory Simmons, Damien DeShaun Smith, Dwayne Washington and Leron Wellington are suave and debonair as The Drifters. Their renditions of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway” are swoon-worthy.
Renee Marie Titus, Zuri Washington, Cecily Dionne Davis and Cece Morin bring to the stage all the glamor, style and talent of The Shirelles with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Davis returns to the stage and shines once again as fictional singer Janelle Woods singing “One Fine Day,” and Morin as Little Eva sounds fantastic singing “The Loco-motion.” Joe Caskey and Jack B. Murphy as The Righteous Brothers also deliver a powerful “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.”
The Engeman musicians, led by Jeff Cox, are equally impressive on all the tunes. Kyle Dixon has done a phenomenal job creating a stage design that is versatile yet eye-catching with golden-colored sliding panels, and costume designer Dustin Cross has captured the fun and glamor of the 1960s perfectly.
The beauty of Engeman’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is that theatergoers don’t have to be fans of the artist or the songs of the 1960s to enjoy a spectacular night of entertainment. The cast and crew have once again crafted a production worthy of Broadway.
The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main Street, Northport presents Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through Oct. 29. Tickets range from $85 to $95. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.
All photos courtesy of The John W. Engeman Theater.
See a preview of the show here.