Prior to attending opening night of the Nashville leg of Beautiful The Carole King Musical—on stage in Music City at TPAC’s Jackson Hall through Sunday, May 28—I half-jokingly told Susannah Devereux, my ‘theatre wife’ for the evening that other than a song of two I wasn’t even sure what songs Carole King’d done. Don’t get me wrong. I am fully aware Carole King was a prolific singer/songwriter of the sixties and seventies. I knew she had hits with songs like You’ve Got a Friend, A Natural Woman and Will You Love Me Tomorrow. I even knew those songs came from her breakout 1971 multi-award-winning Tapestry, thanks to my late-Aunt Charlene’s always eclectic musical taste, but beyond that, I must confess, I truly didn’t know much about the woman behind the hits.
Beautiful changes all that, and does so in a charming, entertaining and tune-filled way. Much like Jersey Boys, Motown: The Musical and even Always, Patsy Cline, Beautiful takes the audience on a well-crafted musical journey of its subject’s seemingly fairytale rise to stardom cleverly inserting hit-song after hit-song to accentuate the select events of King’s life.
Cast in the lead role, Julia Knitel takes the audience along from an unexpectedly ballsy teenage girl who lands a songwriting gig at the famed Brill Building—to a hurt-by-love, but stronger for it, Grammy-winning music-megaforce on the eve of playing a sold-out dream gig at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall. Knitel plays King with an understated assurance wrapped in a charming girl-next-door package. Her performance may seem effortless, but it’s the thoughtful evolution of the woman we all thought we knew that’s beautiful in every sense of the word.
From the start, we meet King’s mother, Genie, played to meddling Manhattan Jewish mother perfection by Suzanne Grodner. Genie would prefer her daughter be a teacher, but by the time success is in sight, you’d have thought she was the one who suggested her daughter be a singer/songwriter.
While King has had as many husbands as she has Grammys—she’s four for four—Beautiful focuses on her first, Gerry Goffin, played to the narcissistic and troubled hilt by Liam Tobin. Dialogue between Knitel’s King and her high school bestie while discussing Tobin’s Goffin sets the tone warning that he’s a flirt, so it’s no spoiler alert that their relationship is doomed from the start, but Tobin’s so charming as Goffin, you kind of understand why a woman of that day would keep taking him back.
On that subject, Beautiful, like Motown, and most jukebox musicals, addresses some of the troubles of the show’s subject’s life, but it is a Broadway show after, all, so for the most part, it’s a pretty glossy, everything’s all right in the end kind of show.
Helping keep things from getting too heavy are Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser as fellow Brill writing pals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Weil and Mann may not be as well-known outside the music business as King, but they too have written enough songs to fill their own musical. Wisely, Beautiful scribe Douglas McGrath includes a handful of Weil/Mann tunes including Who Put the Bomp, He’s Sure The Boy I Love, On Broadway, We Gotta Get Outta This Place, differentiating the show from a full-on King songbook musical. Olson and Fankhauser’s will they?/won’t they? as Weil and Mann, plus the actors’ spot-on comedic timing and undeniably likable personalities help keep the show light, even when it tries to get a little to serious for musical theatre.
There’s also Curt Bouril as famed music biz god Don Kirshner who smartly hired a teenage King and mentored her throughout her early career. The audience can’t help but love how he pits King/Goffin against Weil/Mann as he constantly, and successfully searches for each next hit song. With cocky stage presence aplenty, Bouril’s Kirschner proves not only why he was known as the ‘man with the golden ear’, but also one of the most well-liked and respected men in the biz.
Seemingly taking a hint from Motown: The Musical, Beautiful also features ensemble actors performing tunes penned by King, Goffin, Weil and Mann. So instead of just the core four taking turns at their eventual hits ‘round the writer’s piano, the audiences is also treated to glitzy production numbers, from ensemble members performing as Neil Sedaka, The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers and Little Eva. The latter, in reality was King and Goffin’s babysitter!—Just one of the gems hidden within the tapestry of the show. One of the many musical production number highlights features Rosharra Francis as Little Eva. Following a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick costume change, she performs the King/Goffin 1962 hit The Loco-motion. Speaking of that quick-change, the costumes throughout the show, by costumer Alejo Vietti, and wigs by Charles G. LaPointe for Beautiful are a mod-lover’s dream.
Another great full-production number, albeit historically inaccurate, happens when a singer named Janelle Woods sings One Fine Day at a TV taping. In reality the song was a hit for The Chiffons, but there’s no mention of them in this musical and in real life, they never performed it on TV. Also blending the line between reality and fiction, within the context of Beautiful, the fictional Janelle Woods is having an affair with Goffin. The lyrics “one fine day, you’re gonna want me for your girl” are just one example of the care in which the music parallels the story.
Elsewhere, Up On The Roof attempts to punctuate Goffin’s drug issues and wandering eye, but the song is so perfect optimistic that it falls flat when alighted to the characters troubles. There’s also an awkward scene in which King, Goffin, Weil and Mann find themselves away on a ski vacation. At Goffin’s suggestion, the gang embraces the ‘free love’ vibe of the era and settles in for a game of strip poker. It gets no further than Tobin’s Goffin taking off his shirt to reveal the expected Broadway boy body restrained by a tank top, but it attempts to allude once again to Goffin’s marital indiscretions.
Another fun fact revealed in Beautiful—a teenage relationship with Neil Sedaka. Years before Taylor Swift became famous for writing about her exes, the duo took to pen, paper and piano to work out their relationship woes by way of Sedaka’s 1959 Top Ten hit, Oh, Carol (when they dated in high school, she was still going by her no ‘e’ birth name, Carol Klein). While not part of the show’s soundtrack, she made musical retort in real life to Sedaka’s song with Oh, Neil, penned by hubby Goffin.
Something else most casual King fans probably don’t know, she wrote a handful of songs for The Monkees. While the prospect of writing for a music group for a sitcom is balked at in a scene involving King’s increasingly disenchanted (and increasingly drug-abusing and cheating) husband, Goffin, the inclusion of Pleasant Valley Sunday, a #3 hit for TV’s comedic, but ultimately talented answer to the Fab Four, plays tribute to yet another aspect of King’s musical journey. Interestingly, it’s performed by yet another of Goffin’s fictionalize trysts, Marilyn Wald (Aashley Morgan).
While Beautiful focuses primarily on King’s career from the Brill years to Carnegie Hall, there’s so much more to her story. There’s hints to that as well. Most notably in the character Nick, played by Andrew Brewer. Thanks to a head-up by the ladies in the row behind me who kept asking each other about James Taylor, it dawned on me that Nick, who encourages King to perform her solo stuff at New York’s famed nightspot, The Bitter End looks a bit like Taylor did in the early seventies. A little research after seeing the show, and before writing this review, reveals that King herself has said Nick is an amalgamation of longtime pal Taylor and her second husband, Charles Larkey. Aside from the fact that, as is, Beautiful clocks in an astounding 27 songs—a large majority of them King’s—including details about her life after Carnegie Hall…marriages to the above-mentioned Larkey, as well as a reported abusive third husband and a pretty nondescript fourth marriage…would not only have required more than the allotted time, but might not have made the story seem quite as Beautiful.
The National Tour of Beautiful The Carole King Musical continues its Nashville run at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall with performances through Sunday, May 28. Click Here for tickets. The show continues across the US and Canada with shows currently schedule through June of 2018. Click Here for upcoming cities and dates. You can keep up with the latest from Beautiful on Tour by following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. To check out what’s happening at TPAC, you can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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