By Richard Ades
Pop memories mix with Broadway pizzazz in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
The titular singer-songwriter won multiple Grammys in 1971 with Tapestry, an album that voiced the joys, fears and regrets of an entire generation. Beautiful, a jukebox musical written by Douglas McGrath, explains how King became the person who created the iconic work.
The journey begins when King (winningly played by Julia Knitel) is a precocious 16-year-old who’s determined to forge a career writing pop songs. Despite multiple rejections, she persuades her mom (Alaina Mills) to let her try one more time by taking her latest tune to a recording studio on Times Square.
There she meets two men who will play crucial roles in her career: record producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), who is won over by her pop lament It Might as Well Rain Until September; and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), a lyricist who quickly becomes her partner in music and in life.
In most jukebox musicals, the plot exists only to tie together a slew of popular songs. In Beautiful, the plot exists to explain how those songs came to be. Because King’s tunes have so much emotional resonance for those who grew up with them, the story has built-in appeal. We want to know what turned this nerdy, self-effacing teen into the older but wiser, sadder but stronger talent who poured her aching heart out in Tapestry.
In the touring show, that appeal helps to make up for a central relationship that seems iffy from the start because Tobin’s Goffin comes across as someone who is as self-absorbed as he is brilliant. King may think he’s worth the effort, but viewers are apt to be less convinced.
Oddly, it’s easier to root for another songwriting couple who become friendly competitors to King and Goffin. Lyricist Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) is sassy and sarcastic, while composer Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) is a lovable hypochondriac. The two create both laughs and romantic sparks whenever they’re onstage.
Under Marc Bruni’s direction, the show flows smoothly and efficiently from one scene or song to the next. Derek McLane’s scenery, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Alejo Vietti’s costumes combine to create stage pictures that are both glitzy and elegant. The production numbers are particularly gorgeous and benefit from Josh Prince’s choreography, which often parodies moves favored by early groups such as the Shirelles and the Drifters (both of which make guest “appearances”).
My personal favorite among the production numbers: the Drifters’ rendition of On Broadway, one of the Weil-Mann hits. But there are many other musical moments, both big and intimate, that will tempt viewers to sing along. (But don’t, please—you’ll get your chance during the curtain call.)
My only musical complaint is that Knitel sometimes strays from the well-known King melodies, as if trying to make them her own. Since she’s playing King, she really ought to stick to the original notes. Overall, though, she vocalizes beautifully, often capturing the singer’s timbre without doing an outright impersonation. The rest of the cast sings equally well and is expertly backed up by conductor Susan Draus and her band.
Beautiful may not hit as many emotional moments as it could, but it lives up to its name both visually and aurally while delivering a nutritious serving of nostalgia.
Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through Sunday (June 11) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$246. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.