Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Douglas McGrath (Book)
Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (Music & Lyrics)
It is a testament to the touchstone popularity of a musical that had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2013, returned in 2016, and now is in a limited appearance for its third SF run in a half dozen years that the opening night audience not only packed SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre but was clearly loving every minute of hit after hit song. That the night’s tunes included Motown oldies/goldies like “The Locomotion,” Up on the Roof,” and “On Broadway” as well as the also much-recorded, much-loved songs like “You’ve Got a Friend, ” “It’s Too Late,” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” meant that hardly a person in the vast arena could sit without breaking into a hum or at least mouthing along the words while also gently swaying, tapping toes, or squeezing the hand of the person in the next seat.
But what has made Beautiful a musical that continues not only to draw crowds in its sixth year on Broadway but also to repeated tour sites is not only the twenty-five-plus, well-known songs by two celebrated song-writing teams – Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil – but also the musical’s book by Douglas McGrath which gives their intriguing, back-ground stories. The central focus is of course on the woman who wrote and sung her title song, “Beautiful,” for her multi-Grammy-Award-winning, 1972 album, Tapestry. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tells the story of that music-writing half of a well-known, song-creating duo and how her life’s ups-and-downs – especially the downs – led her becoming an even more famous recording and live-performance star of her own solely written hits.
In a role originally created in San Francisco and on Broadway by Jessie Mueller for which she won in 2014 the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Sarah Bockel reprises her own role as Carole King after being called to assume the role on both Broadway and earlier touring stages as an understudy of Ms. Mueller. From her opening number of “So Far Away,” that deep, prior experience with the role shows. Closing one’s eyes, it is not difficult to imagine Carole King herself singing before us with those distinct vocals that emote a sense of deep reflection, some sorrow, and much inner strength. When opening those eyes, the curly mass of hair moving in response to the song’s emotional waves immediately calls to mind the renowned star herself.
The opening number – one that was sung by Carole King in her Carnegie Hall debut on June 18, 1971 – gives way quickly to a flashback of Carole Klein as a sixteen-year-old teen, trying to convince that song-writing is her destiny to her skeptical mother, Genie (an oft-funny, stalwart Suzanne Grodner). Escaping to New York to the offices of music producer Don Kirshner (an also oft-hilarious James Clow), young Carole (who announces to the receptionist her last name is now “King”) sings in a crackly voice, “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” However, the hammy girl sings well enough for the producer’s eyes to light up and to award the song to Bobby Vee. At sixteen, Carole thus has her first chart-rising hit as a song-writer; and even her mom has to give up (reluctantly) her preferences that Carole play only Bach on their home, upright piano.
|Sarah Bockel & Dylan S. Wallach|
The sixteen-year-old soon meets another aspiring song-writer whose talents lie more in lyrics. She and Gerry Goffin create “Some Kind of Wonderful,” with Dylan S. Wallach bringing his ‘60s-sounding, highly attractive set of vocals to the role of Gerry, blending nicely with the still-developing vocals of the young Carole. When their own duet gives way to the group that will make the song a hit nation-wide – the Drifters – Darius Delk, Willie Hill, Dimitri Joseph Moise, James Michael Lambert, and Avery Smith send the audience swooning through their combination of luscious harmonies and smoothly flowing movements that remind us why the original group has had decades-long staying power. Later Drifters numbers sung by the quartet – “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway – are more proof that the Goffin-King duo has cracked the formula for a winning, hot-selling, Motown sound.
|Cast Members of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical|
Being only sixteen and still living at home does not stop Carole from falling romantically for her writing partner nor from getting pregnant, leading to the two marrying while both are still in their teens. As they suddenly enter adulthood together, they continue pumping out more Motown hits, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “The Locomotion” for Little Eva. Harper Miles, DeAnne Stewart, Danielle J. Summons, and Alia Hodge glide and slide in both their notes and their movements as the Shirelles. Alia Hodge also becomes Little Eva, leading a whole train of back-up singers choo-chooing across the stage with their swinging hips, wheel-rolling arms, and fabulous voices in an audience-rousing “The Locomotion.” In these and the other ensemble and small-group numbers of the evening, choreographer Josh Prince quickly brings back happy, childhood/teenage memories for many of us of a certain age of once watching those same moves by performing groups on TV’s “American Bandstand.”
|Sarah Bockel, Alisson Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer & Dylan S. Wallach|
Douglas McGrath makes the musical’s book all the more rich by including also the early career story of another song-writing duo who become not only best friends but also chief rivals of Gerry and Carole. Alison Whitehurst brings a strong sense of independence, a contagiously attractive personality, and Broadway-worthy vocals and presentation to the role of Cynthia Weil. When she bursts into Don Kirshner’s office, she soon finds herself teamed with a lyricist named Barry Mann, who is also a working chemist and a self-admitting, self-deprecating hypochondriac.
Jacob Heimer is both hilarious as Barry Mann and wowingly impressive whenever he sings any one of this duo’s hits featured in the evening’s musical journey. He ushers in the Mann/Weil “You’ve Got that Lovin’ Feeling,” only to give way to John Michael Dias and Paul Scanlon as they render their absolutely mind-blowing, Righteous Brothers’ rendition of the 1964 single that hit Number One on the charts. Their duo-combination of a deep, guttural bass and a recklessly high tenor blends into another wonderful trip down Memory Lane for many of us now fully mesmerized in the audience.
The inter-connecting life stories of these two song-writing teams bring background insights to many of the songs we hear that we have known for years. However, it is both the psychological and marital challenges of Gerry Goffin that become the life-changing influences that we see bit-by-bit tragically but also miraculously create the Carole King the world now knows. Carole faces more and more frustration, betrayal, and sadness from a partner/husband who says things to her like, “Sometimes you’re such an old lady ... I can’t breathe around you anymore.” But the more marital breakdowns they have that lead to a final break-up, the more we hear Sarah Bockel’s Carole attain the uniquely powerful and moving voice that she increasingly brings to bear in the songs that will populate King’s masterful album, Tapestry. By the time we hear her sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during a recording session for that mega-hit album, there is no doubt that Sarah Bockel has found the emotional core and soul-stirring sound of the singer Carole King had become by 1972.
Director Marc Bruni moves this large cast through the near-fifteen-year timeline and its many scenes with a blended ease that allows scenes to flow like that continuous notes on a music page’s score. While there is much life drama that plays out (some periods extending into near sappy melodrama), the director adds touches of laugh-out-loud humor that are visually hilarious. References of a conversation or a song being sung are accompanied by quick entrances and even quicker exits that appear like an invisible hook has rudely yanked off the momentary visitor to the stage. (One prime example is a quick appearance by John Michael Dias as a singing Neil Sedaka whose “Oh Carol” is oh-so-funny short.
Marc Bruni is given many options for staging his scenes through the scenic design of Derek McLane that goes quickly from mostly bare stage to a split set of multi-leveled rooms of a recording studio. The latter sets up a highly entertaining ensemble number (“1650 Broadway Medley”) where we get to watch snatches of a host of now-oldies like “Splish Splash” and “Love Potion Number Nine” being recorded all at the same time. The framed stage and its back wall of inlaid guitars, microphones, speakers, and more become the pallet for spectacularly designed lighting effects by Peter Kaczorowski, with rich, deep colors giving way to streams of neon lights and a lowered curtain of spots. Brian Ronan ensures all the many singers, the music of Nick Williams’ conducted orchestra, and on-stage bands all balance perfectly through his sound design. And finally, the costumes designed by Alejo Vietti both trace the development of Carole King from a rather modest beginning to eventual stardom as well as highlight the personalities of all those who cross her life and the fabulously adorned Motown singers who helped make her and Gerry’s songs still to be known and loved today.
Juke-box musicals certainly are not the highest forms of live theatre by any means, especially when compared to other, more ground-breaking and daring musicals like the current Hamilton, Hadestown, or Dear Evan Hansen. However, like the perennially popular Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical both provides an evening that feels much like a concert of favorites as well as an evening that tells a rather enlightening and quite engaging story about the people behind the music decades later we still ask Alexa to play for us. The return San Francisco visit of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical to SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre is probably far from its last and one that is still well-worth an evening of reveling in the songs by one truly great song-writer/performer who is a ‘Queen of Music’ named King.
Rating: 4.5 E
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through June 9, 2019 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus