BEAUTIFUL – The Carole King Musical Is Exactly That!

Hahnna Christianson as Carole King (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)
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One of the most enjoyable experiences in memory occurred at The Phoenix Theatre Company the other night. On that evening, we were treated to a personal journey of hope, despair, and resilience wrapped in a retrospective of popular 1960s music. 

A career spanning half a century easily overshadows her humble beginnings. Carol Joan Klein grew up in Brooklyn and later attended Queens College. Somewhere along the way, she started taking her own songwriting ability seriously and was ready with a new professional name: Carole King.

BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical” turned out to be so much more than we could have expected. We had expected to be entertained by a medley of hits sung by some talented local chanteuse, but instead got a most engaging, fascinating, and entertaining biographic retelling of the early life of songwriter, Carole King.

Hahnna Christianson (as Carole King) makes notations on her song, Beautiful”. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

At its most comedic, it is a mad romp through the music of the 60’s when girl groups were all the rage. At its most dramatic, it lays bare some very painful events of Carole King’s life as she struggled to find commercial success with her music.

Hahnna Christianson does an outstanding job of portraying Carole King. A young, Jewish music prodigy, who does well enough in school to skip grades and thus throw her into the merciless grasp of high school seniors. What better way to cripple your self-respect? Christianson captures the smallness of young Carole in physical presence until those moments when circumstances demand that she rise above her station and prove her worth and talent. As a mother, herself barely out of her teens, she is loving, responsible, and yet understandably flustered.

Hahnna Christianson (as Carole King) and Naysh Fox (as Gerry Goffin) collaborate on a new song. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Appearing with Christianson is Naysh Fox (as Gerry Goffin). He has the trickiest tightrope to walk, given Goffin’s early experimentation with LSD and lifelong mental health issues, often quite severe. In Fox’s portrayal, Goffin’s episodes manifest out of the difficult positions that he is constantly putting himself into. Fox brings just the right amount of neurosis to this characterization. We feel his frustration and pain. At the same time, we want to slap him silly because he has so much going for him — his killer good looks being only one aspect — and yet he cannot find peace with himself.

If we are expecting a Carole King impersonation, it simply is not the case. Instead, Christianson captures the naturally pitch-perfect but understated style that earned Carole King the success achieved by her most successful album, Tapestry. It was, and it is on this night, an honest, heartfelt rendition of simple songs of love and life that only the songwriting team of King and Goffin could have penned.

Justin Albinder (as Barry Mann) and Caelan Creaser (as Cynthia Weil) in constant competition with the King/Goffin team. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

Justin Albinder (as Barry Mann), along with Caelan Creaser (as Mann’s musical collaborator Cynthia Weil) provide stark contrast to the relationship that King and Goffin appear to have struggled through during most of their marriage. (By comparison, Mann and Weil remained together for 62 years, right up to Weil’s death in 2023.) Albinder, belying a milquetoast persona,  displays a superhuman vocal range that could shatter fine crystal. Creaser manifests a larger than life personality that embodies the empowered women who arose from the world-changing 1960s. As a pair, they provide the comedy relief that buoys us through the tension of the King/Goffin marriage.

In stark contrast to the intimate story that is told here, we are treated to a full out procession of lavishly produced performances by the likes of The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers, and Little Eva. As this is a locally produced project (versus a traveling show) it is so good to see some of our favorite performers (Matravius Avent, Jacqueline Castillo, Gabrielle Francine Smith, and several others) dressed to the nines in sequins and teased out ‘60s hairstyles, hitting all of those sweet high and low notes that provide authenticity to these reenactments.  

Hahnna Christianson (as Carole King) records “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

D.Scott Withers (as music publisher Don Kirshner) is the anchor in this production. All roads lead to Don Kirshner as singers and songwriters alike are touched by the magic of this music impresario. Kirshner was known as “the Man with the Golden Ear”. Withers plays him with cool, confidence, and swagger. His decisions are quick and final. His music sensibility is unquestioned and unquestionable. Lastly, Sally Jo Bannow (as Carole’s mother, Genie Klein) provides the grounding element of Carole’s personal life, channeling the quintessential Jewish mother who carries around a well-stocked handbag like it was a survival kit.   

Hahnna Christianson as Carole King, debuting Carnegie Hall. (Photo credit: Brennen Russell)

One of the most jaw dropping aspects of this production is the frequency, speed, and precision of scene changes. Many of the background elements of the set serve multiple functions as we segue between homes, offices, and studio sound stages. However, all of the individual props and large set pieces glide in and out in partial darkness, even while a scene is in progress. This is by no means distracting but rather adds to the fascinating display of sheer expertise demonstrated by cast and crew. This is a cornerstone of the professionalism that we have learned to expect from The Phoenix Theatre Company. Our hats are off to Director Michael Barnard and his oh so talented crew of stage hands, costumers, designers, musicians, and technicians. This production truly was…beautiful!

This show runs from March 6 through April 28, 2024. Tickets are available here.


About Joe Gruberman 46 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

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