Regional Reviews: Boston
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
We're watching the birth of that timeless classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the first of many scenes in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical when you feel the breathless excitement of a beloved song entering existence. We expect that this musical biopic will take us through the songwriting legend's catalogue of career-launching hits, but still there's an electricity each time a new standard comes to life. Though Beautiful, which brings its national tour this week to the Boston Opera House, leans on every tried and true cliché to retell Carole King's rise to fame, it takes a sweetly sincere approach to King's journey as she becomes the singer-songwriter of her generation.
Every music icon's catalogue is up for grabs these days. Donna Summer got her Broadway musical, and Cher has, too. Beautiful, thankfully, stands above most jukebox musicals: it's not interested in gimmicks, and the songs we love aren't shoehorned into an unrelated plot. This show, directed by Marc Bruni, with a clean and competent book by Douglas McGrath, tells the story of Carole King from Brooklyn teenager with big dreams to Grammy winner for her transcendental album "Tapestry." She comes onto the scene as Carol Klein, a sixteen-year-old with the guts and talent to sell a song to Manhattan music publisher Donnie Kirschner. (Naturally, she proves her mother wrong after hearing her say, "Girls don't write music, they teach it.") Soon enough, Carole begins a partnership equally professional and romantic with lyricist Gerry Goffin, and they compose the biggest hits for the most popular sixties singing groups.
The early scenes of Beautiful sparkle with youthful drive, like a pop-music version of Merrily We Roll Along, with Carole pushing herself to write while raising a daughter and keeping her marriage to Gerry from running off the rails. We witness the creation of many early Goffin and King hits, from teeny-bopper sensation "The Locomotion" to the smooth and sexy "One Fine Day" (sung by an equally smooth singer with an eye for Gerry). The fearsome, chart-topping duo find themselves in friendly competition with songwriting partners (and married pair) Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, essentially the typical secondary couple of any backstage Broadway musical. It's a thrill to see Cynthia and Barry's hits "On Broadway" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" in electrifying reenactments of the Drifters and the Righteous Brothers. The ensemble is wonderful summoning the spirits of so many great mid-century talents.
As the money rolls in, so do Carole and Gerry's marital troubles. This is where we feel the sag of McGrath's connect-the-dots book, which moves briskly through Carole's rise to the top without digging too deeply into her real pain. To McGrath's credit, he smartly focuses the show on the early decades, rather than King's full life story. His book often takes a backseat so that King's soulful melodies can carry the emotional weight of the show. The creators clearly recognize how well the songs stand on their own, and Bruni's direction allows the actors to perform them relatively unadorned. It's exciting when each new standard is performed for the first time, two fresh, young songwriters hopeful work song will strike a chord.
In the starring role, Sarah Bockel brings the right mix of spunk and vulnerability. (Bockel performs the role through February 3; Elise Vannerson and Kaylee Harwood take over for the rest of the Boston engagement.) Her Carole is unassuming and conflicted at first, but over the course of the night, she learns to stand up for herself as a woman and as an artist. As her writing becomes more deeply personal, Carole realizes she is the only person who can record her own new material. Bockel is an excellent singer, evoking Carole King's iconic raspy sound without pushing too hard to imitate her. The vocal and musical arrangements throughout (by Steve Sidwell) hew closely to the original while giving the actors room to interpret their own way. Bockel is matched by a strong cast, especially Jacob Heimer as the nebbishy, hypochondriac Barry and the spirited and stylish Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia, the chic, clever lyricistboth powerhouse singers who get their chance to shine.
As Gerry Goffin, Dylan S. Wallach has a natural boyishness that helps him make sense of an underwritten character. Gerry isn't the villain here; he's insecure and restless, unable to breathe in the life he's created with Carole. The show skims over the darker details of what King has described in real life as manic depression; even when he's hospitalized, his breakdown is conveyed through vague brush stokes. This is a boomer-friendly show designed to highlight Carole's self-empowerment, so Gerry's real demons remain only half-tapped.
Still, when the cast gathers for the final "Tapestry" recording session, and those chords resonate at the top of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," it's hard not to be choked up. Carole has waited her whole life for the confidence to perform her own songs in her own style: the tempo slower, the voice more down-to-earth with its rougher edges. "I never meant to be a singer," she says on stage at Carnegie Hall. Thank goodness life had other plans. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical succeeds in the end because it's infused with the warmth and humanity that has defined Carole King throughout her amazing career. It's almost certain you'll still love it tomorrow.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, through February 10, 2019 , presented by Broadway in Boston at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street, Boston MA. Tickets are sold at BroadwayInBoston.com, through Ticketmaster at 800-982-2787, and at the Boston Opera House box office during normal business hours. For more information on the tour, visit beautifulonbroadway.com/tour/.
Cast (in order of appearance):