Performing Arts

‘Beautiful’ is only skin-deep, but Carole King’s songs are timeless

Carole King (Julie Knitel, left), Cynthia Weil (Erika Olsen), Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) crafted a slew of pop hits from the 1960s through the 1990s. Their story is depicted in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which continues through April 2 at the Music Hall.
Carole King (Julie Knitel, left), Cynthia Weil (Erika Olsen), Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) crafted a slew of pop hits from the 1960s through the 1990s. Their story is depicted in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which continues through April 2 at the Music Hall. ©2016 Joan Marcus

The Carole King songbook is so deep and familiar — virtually the soundtrack for many a baby boomer’s adolescence — that the makers of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” could have staged a greatest-hits concert and left it at that.

Instead, they went for a Broadway bio, making “Beautiful” a coming-of-age story with Brooklyn teen Carole King breaking into the early ’60s pop music game, writing million-seller songs, falling for a fellow tunesmith, enduring heartbreak and — a bit sadder but definitely wiser — emerging triumphant as a solo performer.

As show-biz tales go, “Beautiful” — it continues through April 2 at the Music Hall — is hardly original (“Jersey Boys” got there sooner with what is now called the “jukebox musical” format). It never challenges the viewer.

But as a tuneful two hours of musical nostalgia, it is hugely satisfying.

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Douglas McGrath’s book for the show finds room not only for King-penned hummers (“Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “I Feel the Earth Move”) but also embraces other pop hits of the era: “Be-Bop-A-Lula.,” “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp),” “On Broadway,” “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

More than half of the show’s running time is taken up with renditions of these terrific musical numbers, and if the show repeatedly threatens to fall back on “and then I wrote …,” at least the songs and performances are top-drawer.

Leading the cast is Julia Knitel, who metamorphoses from insecure ponytailed teen to stage-dominating Earth Mother with a head of frizzy locks. Knitel not only sounds a lot like the real King, but she nails her subject’s gradual maturation through triumph and setback. Despite the thinness of the book, her performance provides an emotional center.

As King’s husband and collaborator, Gerry Goffin, Liam Tobin delivers both the guy’s hunky sex appeal and the creeping mental illness that broke up their personal and professional partnership.

Playing their best friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz … er, I mean songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (hit-generators in their own right) are the excellent Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser; she exudes a brassy determination (you might call it proto-feminism) while he’s a comic bundle of Woody Allen-ish neuroses.

Under Marc Bruni’s direction a huge (well, it seems huge) cast of players tackle multiple roles as they create the bopping, joyful, sensuous world of early rock and pop.

Especially effective are the four male performers who appear as the hit-generating vocalists the Drifters (all pink shirts and processed hair) and their female counterparts, who embody the Shirelles. Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias bring down the house as the Righteous Brothers singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” I could have watched Rosharra Francis’ Little Eva dance “The Locomotion” all night long.

Tech credits are first rate, especially Derek McLane’s settings, various units that glide on and off the stage in near-cinematic fashion. Alejo Vietta’s costumes not only feel just right (from poofy prom dresses to go-go boots), but some of them magically transform from street clothes to glamorous gowns in the blink of an eye.

The credits list only four musicians in the pit … apparently all those horns and strings are synthesized. No matter. The show sounds terrific.

Read freelancer Robert W. Butler's movie reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.

On stage

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” continues through April 2 at the Music Hall. For more information, call 816-421-7500 or go to TheaterLeague.com.

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