Theater Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL (Second National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on September 15, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


If notes make joy, these 150 minutes are the elixir of happiness. Spanning only 13 years of its creator’s career (1958-1971), Beautiful: The Carole King Musical balances life against art. Magnificently. Its wonderful songs both stand on their own and preserve the pain and pleasure that went into their making.

Douglas McGrath’s perfect-pitch script shows how a shy Brooklyn girl named Carole Klein turns composer to find her sound. After sorting out a collaborative, then destructive, marriage, in her ground-breaking Tapestry album and Carnegie Hall concert, Carole King finds her voice too. Paraphrasing the Irving Berlin lyric, “She said it with music.”

Staged with conviction and class by Marc Bruni, Beautiful opened its well-deserved second national tour last night at The Pantages in Hollywood. This is that rare jukebox musical in which the story is as crucial as the songs. Each inseparable element explores and expands the other. Sarah Bockel captures Carole’s every compelling contradiction as, driven to put tunes together, the 16-year-old apprentice songwriter grows into a 28-year-old artist who’s paid her dues. Along the way, over two dozen chart-busting standards chronicle King’s constant private-versus-public crisis — how to balance love and work with a soulmate who both inspires and enrages you.

Welcomed by recording mogul Don Kirshner (James Clow) to his seminal studio at 1650 Broadway, a teenage Carole earns an early success with “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” It’s the first inevitable ballad to spring effortlessly from a very musical mind. There she hooks up with two other “Be-Bop-A-Lula” legends-to-be–lyricist Cynthia Weil (a radiant Alison Whitehurst) and composer Barry Mann (a charming Jacob Heimer). Volatile and ambitious hopefuls too busy to settle into marriage, this rock ‘n’ roll team will become worthy rivals and non-negotiable friends, helping the young dreamer to make her style if only by process of elimination.

But competition isn’t catalyst enough for this future phenom. She needs to infuse melodies with love. That comes with her future husband and musical muse Gerry Goffin (charismatic Dylan S. Wallach). As time turns out, they put words and notes together (‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Take Good Care of My Baby”) much better than her shy devotion and his wild side can ever meld.

Sung in rich recreations of Neil Sedaka (John Michael Dias) and doo-wop’s legendary The Shirelles, The Drifters and the Righteous Brothers, triumphs from both teams come fast and happy: “Up on the Roof,” “Who Put the Bomp,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” each one an irresistible temptation to dance in the aisle. Only when Janelle Woods (McKynleigh Alden Abraham) croons “One Fine Day,” seemingly singing only for a very appreciative Gerry, does Carole realize her rose just lost its bloom.

The second act contrasts Carole’s life-support marriage with her imaginative fluorescence as she creates new flavors for The Bitter End, half-heartedly flirting with hippy guitarist Nick (Paul Scanlan). Hungry for more than life can grant, womanizing Gerry succumbs to a breakdown driven by drugs and more conflicting desires that any marriage could resolve. Moving to the New Jersey suburbs (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”) can’t cure a hunger without the food to end it. Ironically, just as Carole’s too-early marriage founders, Barry and Cynthia finally commit. It was worth the wait.

Breaking up with her help(less)mate (“It’s Too Late”), Carole embarks for — or escapes to — Los Angeles, giving Barry and Cynthia the parting gift of “You’ve Got a Friend.” (It’s her response to their “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”) Free to be full and finding a second powerful patron in Lou Adler (Dias), Carole discovers talent is her ticket, not her looks (“Beautiful”). Gloriously, she cinches fame with her solo sensation “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — no feminist icon but definitely sex on a score. As it began with “So Far Away,” the musical comes full circle to Carnegie Hall. Carole King is fully completed — by herself.

The songs — themselves a 2015 Grammy Winner — are equal to the journey. Apart from its totally justified nostalgia, Beautiful glows with superb storytelling, impeccably illustrated by Susan Draus’s musical direction and Josh Prince’s period-preserving choreography. Derek McLane’s supple modular sets instantly set their scenes. Alejo Vietti’s rapid-changing costumes are dated in just the best way.

Whether or not “she wrote the soundtrack to a generation,” as the press release extols, this Beautiful show carries the emotional weight of history, family, friendship, nostalgia, and great theater.

photos by Joan Marcus

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
national tour
reviewed at Hollywood Pantages
ends on September 30, 2018 in Hollywood


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