by MIKE CHAIKEN
If you’re of a certain age, you’re well aware of the music of Carole King—either the material she wrote with her longtime writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin or the material she wrote and sang for herself in the 1970s.
The familiarity of the music to the ears of audience members is key to the success of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which opened at The Bushnell in Hartford on Jan. 17 and continues through Jan. 22.
The show has a plethora of material composed by or with King, such as the classic Shirelles’ hit, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” Little Eva’s “The Locomotion,” King’s own, “It’s Too Late,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” The show also features a good deal of material written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, whose characters figure prominently in the show.
Each time a familiar song swelled through the speakers at The Bushnell, audience members (many of them from the generation that grew up with the music) gasped, sighed, oohed, and ahhed– proclaiming under their breath, “I love that song.”
The music, of course, plays a prominent role in the show because it played a prominent role in King’s life. As set forth in the script, King began her songwriting career at the mere age of 16, landing a job with Don Kirschner’s house of songwriters, composing pop hits for the artists of the day. Through her love for music, she also met her lyricist and future husband Gerry Goffin.
Essentially, “Beautiful” is the typical jukebox musical, with a bunch of songs never intended to be heard together, which are then used to propel a story forward. We’ve seen these kinds of shows before from “The Motown Story” (featuring the music of Motown) to “Movin’ Out” (featuring the music of Billy Joel) to “Jersey Boys” (featuring the music of Four Seasons).
When these musicals go the bio route, sometimes the urge by the creators is to shape the main characters as heroes, gloss over their real life flaws.
What’s attractive about “Beautiful” is the book by Douglas McGrath doesn’t shy away from the conflict between the real life characters due to their flaws. Gerry Goffin’s self doubt and mental health issues are a key driving point of the plot. It’s a musical so we’re not talking about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff” but for a musical based on the lives of people who are still alive, the frankness is refreshing.
The book and the music, however, would not be enough to hold the attention of the audience’s attention if the performances were lacking. And the cast is fabulous
Julia Knitel, who plays King, is an absolute delight. There is an honest quality to her performance. She makes her character immensely likeable. She makes the character’s self-doubt endearing, but without it veering into annoying neuroticism. She finds a way to breathe life into the script when perhaps the words alone are lacking. And musically, she does a fabulous job of tackling King’s familiar material, evoking the spirit of the original performances, but avoiding a Las Vegas tribute approach to King.
Liam Tobin, who plays Goffin, also does a fine job as the conflicted artist. He has the toughest job on stage as the character whose turmoil is percolating at the surface from the moment he step son stage, but who hides it as best as he can until it can no longer be contained.
Erika Olson, as Weil, and Ben Fankhauser, as Mann, also serve as wonderful foils to King and Goffin. But they are also careful of not letting their characters, sink into comedic relief. They provide a nice counterweight to Knitel and Tobin and give the show some context.
There were a few flaws in the show. The dialogue sometimes is a little wooden and a little unrealistic– which sometimes happens with these biographical type of jukebox musicals. Typically, however, these awkward lines emanated from minor characters whose sole purpose was to help move the story along. The central characters, on the other hand, were all well-written.
A key indicator that the show was a success was that the standing ovation was immediate as the cast stepped out to take its bow. Afterward, many audience members were still speaking glowingly about the show and the music as they headed out into the parking lot.
I give “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” 3 ½ stars out of 4. The show continues tonight at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday at 8 p.m. Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
For tickets, go to Bushnell.org