Dateline—Well yes, now that you ask, we did feel the earth…move…under our feet on the opening night of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at Bass Performance Hall.
For the fans of Carole King—and in particular those amongst us who played her Tapestry album until the needle wouldn’t cut butter—this was the show to see. And judging by the almost ecstatic response of the first-night audience, it didn’t disappoint a one of them.
Presented as part of Performing Arts Fort Worth’s “Broadway at the Bass” series, Beautiful pleases on every level, with a glowing and emotionally true performance from Sarah Bockel as King; a smart script from playwright/screenwriter Douglas McGrath; and a raft of talented singers and sidekicks who fill out the story of one little girl from Brooklyn who liked to write songs.
Sure, it’s a jukebox musical running down a list of hits—but what a list.
First come the ‘60s pop songs King wrote with her young husband Gerry Goffin: “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof” and “One Fine Day”—all for groups including the Shirelles, the Chiffons and the Drifters. For Aretha Franklin, they wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and the Beatles covered the King-Goffin hit “Chains” on an early album.
Then there are the songs she wrote as the Sixties became the Seventies—the ones that hit a generation right where we lived as she and we discovered that life was “Beautiful”…but complicated: “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” and more. King brought new life to her early songs: “Natural Woman,” “Will You Love me Tomorrow” and others sounded altogether different—deeper, more human—rendered in King’s strong, slightly scratchy, been-there voice.
Beautiful plays big—with a supersized “music factory” backdrop of audio equipment and guitars by scenic designer Derek McLane, and sleekly staged pop-group performances from director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince—but at heart this is a show about two couples. King and Goffin (Andrew Brewer) are best friends with their songwriting competitors at 1650 Broadway (not the legendary Brill Building, but in the neighborhood) Cynthia Weil (Sarah Goeke) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer), whose hits include “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’Feeling.”
Weil and Mann are the designated comedy couple and get the night’s most genuine laughs as sleek Cynthia tries to decide what to make of talented, nebbishy hypochondriac Mann. Add Don Kirschner (genial but snarky James Clow) as a music promoter with a heart of gold (or something shiny), and Carole’s practical, be-a-teacher Brooklyn Mom (peppery wisecracker Suzanne Grodner), and you have the perfect support group for King and Goffin, whose increasingly difficult partnership (Carole was only 17 when they married) needed all the help they could give.
The script’s nuanced portrait of King, who took a long time to recognize her own talent as a performer, sets Beautiful apart—and Bockel, in costume designer Alejo Vietti’s plain-Jane clothes, helps us see the star inside the self-effacing young mother and wife who always put “my guy” first. Brewer handles Goffin’s confusion and moods well, and both Goeke and Heimer get past the jokes to turn up as real, live humans—and good friends.
Not to mention that all four are terrific singers. Bockel, knowing every ear is tuned to see “how close” she can come to the original, puts a bit of her own into the music but gets eerily adjacent to the real Carole, down to the slight catches and wobbles of King’s one-of-a-kind voice. And Bockel can dig down and belt it, too, when the music gets moving.
Other touring companies could learn a thing or three from the sound and music mavens of Beautiful. The orchestra, led by conductor Susan Draus, never once overpowers the singing, and each lyric comes through clear as a bell. Kudos to Brian Ronan’s sound design, Jason Howland’s music supervision and Draus’ deft work in the pit for a job extra-well done.
Charles LaPointe’s wigs are a head trip, especially the ‘dos for the girl groups and King’s wildly curling Tapestry-era mane. (How did we handle all that hair?) And Peter Kaczorowski’s splendid lighting of performances by the Shirelles, Drifters, Righteous Brothers and more are literally a highlight—catching every sequin and satiny edge of Vietti’s period costumes.
The 12 members of the ensemble pop in and out of costumes and scenes with what seems like energy to spare—and do well with the highly stylized moves and sound of the groups who put the King-Goffin name on the charts. John Michael Dias hits the high notes as Neil Sedaka, and pairs with Nathan Scherich on the Righteous Brother’s “Lovin’ Feeling.” Alexis Tidwell does some fine “Loco-Motion” as Little Eva, and McKynleigh Alden Abraham is silky smooth as the lead vocal for the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day.”
Still, we find ourselves remembering the un-polished version of each song—King and Goffin working hard at a piano--and liking them even better. And maybe that’s the secret to the moment in 1971 when Carole King wrapped so many of us around her piano-playing pinkie. Tapestry was that magic mix of just-written songs—sung in Carole King’s new-to-us voice, human and throaty and real—and old songs we’d known for years in their slickly produced Billboard Top Ten versions.
But now she reclaimed them, and they were different songs. We heard them, and her, as if for the first time. She sang about love in all its iterations—joyful, struggling, lost. She sang about real lives—and women’s lives in particular—at a time when we all seemed to be making it up day by day. It was scary, and it was good to know “you’ve got a friend.”
Words and music to live by, courtesy of the little girl from Brooklyn.