“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”, “Take Good Care of My Baby”, “The Loco-Motion”, “One Fine Day”, “Up On the Roof”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. Some of the biggest hits of the 1960s by some of the biggest artists of the 1960, and while the artists from The Shirelles to Aretha Franklin got all of the glory, did you ever stop to think about who actually wrote those songs? During that era, it was rare for an artist to write and perform their own music, and you might be surprised to learn who did write those hits.
It was none other than Carole King and her partner (eventually husband) Gerry Goffin. And now the Tony, Drama Desk, Olivier and Grammy Award winning Broadway musical Beautiful — The Carole King Musical is making its way across the country, bring King’s story to life in the most beautiful way. And it’s not just the story of King and Goffin, but their friends and musical competitors Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann as well, a successful songwriting team in their own right (“On Broadway”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”).
The show starts out with King’s solo performance at Carnegie Hall not long after she won several Grammys for her first album Tapestry. As she ends a song, she begins to tell us a bit about her life growing up in Brooklyn at which point the rest of the show becomes a flashback, first to the teen-aged Carole hoping to sell a song to music producer Don Kirshner, meeting Gerry Goffin in college and becoming a songwriting team, then a married couple with a child. As the couple become more successful, Gerry quits his day job and works full time writing songs with Carole.
But before he quits his job, he nearly misses a deadline for a song for The Shirelles and a bold, brash Cynthia Weil enters the room, forcing an audition on Kirshner. Gerry’s lyrics are incomparable, but Kirshner likes Weil and pairs her with the neurotic Barry Mann, and the two teams become friends and competitors, always vying to get a song to Kirshner and to Number 1 on the Billboard charts. While Carole is enjoying the success and her family, Gerry is beginning to feel restless, blatantly telling Carole he’s going to have an affair with singer Janelle Woods (a fictionalized version of a real singer with the group The Cookies). In the show’s second act, King is trying to hold her marriage together while balancing a career and family until she can’t take any more and finds her own voice.
Beautiful is a truly uplifting and enjoyable theatrical experience, never allowing King’s darker moments become too dark. Surprisingly, though, it does leave out a lot of information: she made demo records in high school with her friend Paul Simon, and that she collaborated on “You’ve Got a Friend” with James Taylor, who is never mentioned in the show. Perhaps neither is mentioned for legal reasons (or they just didn’t want to add another character to the show), but the implication is that she wrote “You’ve Got a Friend” alone. It’s an odd little omission.
Regardless, if you don’t know any of that, the show is just wonderful from beginning to end. The show’s production design is simple but effective, consisting of a series of sliding panels and various pieces of furniture, including a piano or two, that glide across the stage for each scene, whether it be at Carole’s home, the office, a TV studio or a nightclub. The staging is also clever in how it presents the songwriters songs, as they hand them off to Kirshern and groups representing The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Chiffons take the stage to perform them. You can’t help but smile, tap your feet and clap your hands when hearing all of this familiar music.
Lighting design also helps differentiate between settings, and the costume design is impeccable to the period and in a few case quite magical. When we first meet the Shirelles, they’re in street clothes while King pitches “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” to them, promising a full string arrangement. As the girls walk behind a panel in the center of the stage, they appear in the blink of an eye in a completely different outfit. This happens a few more times, most notably with Little Eva as she goes from babysitter to singer of “The Locomotion” right before our eyes. It’s an amazing transformation.
The cast is also spectacular from the smaller parts like Kirsher and King’s mother (who steals the show whenever she’s on stage) to the four primary actors. Ben Fankhauser is wonderful as Barry Mann, getting the bulk of the show’s funniest dialog, especially when it’s relating to his various neuroses. And he’s got a great voice too. Erika Olson is also terrific as the sassy, wise Cynthia Weil and she has a voice that can raise the roof. Olson also has a way with the one-liners, but we also feel the friendship she shares with Carole. Two great performances.
Gerry Goffin is now played by former understudy Andrew Brewer who replaces Liam Tobin in the role. Never missing a beat or a line, and in fine, fine voice, Brewer gave a terrific performance as the tortured Goffin, allowing us to see and feel the love he had for Carole, and then making us angry for breaking her heart. It’s a great performance full of conflicted emotions.
Of course, the star of the show is Carole King and she is played to perfection by Julia Knitel. Knitel easily goes from the adult King who starts the story to the 16-year-old who grows to wife and mother to solo act over the course of the show. She gives the teen King a nerdy but determined quality, insisting to her mother that she wants to write songs not teach. As she grows and marries and struggles with her life, Knitel really makes us feel as if we’re seeing her over the course of several years, changing her demeanor from the bubbly child to the frazzled, betrayed wife. And her voice … she may not sound exactly like Carole King, but she can belt out a tune. When she, Olson and Fankhauser harmonize on “You’ve Got a Friend” before Carole leaves New York for Los Angeles, they are sure to bring a tear to your eye. And then Knitel gets to tear up the one song King didn’t want to sing on her album because Goffin wrote the lyrics: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”. In a word, she brings down the house. It is a remarkable performance all around.
If you only know Carole King from her solo career, run to the theatre nearest you and check out Beautiful for a night of great performances, great music and a great production from start to finish. And stay for the sing-along at the end to “I Feel the Earth Move”.
Beautiful — The Carole King Musical is currently at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre through January 29. Over the course of the year, the show will make about two dozen stops in cities including Miami, Greenville, Memphis, New Orleans, Austin, Richmond, Cincinnati, Nashville, Milwaukee, Chicago and more.
Beautiful — The Carole King Musical runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
You can find the tour dates on the show’s website, or check our Ticketmaster link for ticket availability in your city.