Dallas — There are plenty of reasons that Beautiful - The Carole King Musical won all those Tony and Grammy Awards in its 2014 Broadway production. First, the show is built around the terrific tunes King and her contemporaries wrote, coupled with Josh Prince's sexy, ensemble choreography of ’60s and ’70s pop groups.
Plus, Douglas McGrath's tight book aligns those songs expertly with the story of the 16-year-old girl from Brooklyn who finds songwriting success, love and marriage to a high school hunk with playwright ambitions, followed by heartbreak and divorce when that dream crumbles. Under the nuanced direction of Marc Bruni, we cheer as this modest gifted woman comes into her own as a performer before it's all said and sung.
Best of all, we hear King's songs rise out of her experience in a direct, compelling way that makes us feel not only her joy in creating songs, but also the thrill of hearing the music delivered for the first time by the Billboard artists for whom she wrote. The Drifters are flirty, elegant dudes singing in harmony and moving their long legs in easy sync, and the Shirelles are all pink, glittering chiffon and R&B allure. There's more than one love story going on in this show.
Take one revealing, intimate scene in the touring production of Beautiful at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House. Carole (vibrant, full-throated Sarah Bockel) has progressed from teenager with chutzpah and a tune in her head to a hit songwriter married to lyricist Gerry Goffin (handsome, restless Dylan S. Wallach), her first love and composing partner. She wakes up, takes care of their baby daughter, and finds a song Gerry's been up all-night writing on deadline. She sits down at the piano, reads the words, and picks out what seems now the inevitable opening melody to "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." How many gals in the audience throb to that tender song, written by King and Goffin and recorded by the shimmering Shirelles in 1960? The chorus of sighs was sweetly audible on opening night. The song, recorded by pop singers like Amy Winehouse, Leslie Grace and Kamasi Washington, remains a prom standard because the title question still reveals so much about youthful yearnings and vulnerability.
We feel the whole vibe of the ’60s and ’70s in the opening pop bath. Set designer Derek McClane frames the stage in billboard-style lights around the famous Brill Building, the Tin Pan Alley of the era that cranked out chart-climbing hits by the hundred. Hot performers light up every corner of the grid singing short bits of "Poison Ivy," "Be-Bop-a-Lula," and "Splish-Splash, I Was Takin' a Bath." Yakkety-yak, don't overanalyze a pop hit.
Bockel is a warm and endearing Carole King, opening the show with her 1971 solo hit "So Far Away," and building self-confidence as the play proceeds. Her frizzy, dirty blonde curls bounce in rhythm as she sings the title song in her throaty, stirring voice that sounds exactly like King in the show's moving title song. When she opens up on "A Natural Woman," not only do we think of King, but of Aretha Franklin's 1967 landmark recording of the classic. Of course, throbbing songbird Carole made it to Carnegie Hall.
The fun of the show is not just in its increasingly self-assured heroine, but in the strong performances throughout. Wallach is more touching than villainous as Carole's disturbed, philandering husband. They married and became parents while still teenagers. Between changing diapers and part-time jobs, they also wrote "One Fine Day" and "Up on the Roof," not to mention the deathless dance tune, "The Loco-Motion", recorded by their real-life babysitter Little Eva, embodied by Alexis Tidwell who knocks it out of the hall in a funky ensemble number.
McGrath extends the musical boundaries of the show by including many standards written by King's pals and songwriting competitors Barry Mann (comic hypochondriac Jacob Heimer) and Cynthia Weil (sardonic, belt-it-out Alison Whitehurst, an alum of Texas Christian University). The glitziest production number in the show is built around their hit "On Broadway." The Righteous Brothers (John Michael Dias and Paul Scanlan) pull us back in time with their rendition of the Mann/Weil hit, "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin’."
Words and music. That's what we remember. From Mamma Mia and ABBA love, to Jersey Boys and Motown, the jukebox musical has become a Broadway staple. Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations is the just latest bio-musical commanding sell-out crowds. We get a kick out of hearing the music we grew up with, especially when performed with panache and style by super singers and actors who bring to life the glory of our idols in their climb to the top. Formulaic, maybe. But these shows often deliver some insight and soul to a tough-hustle modern audience eager for nostalgia.
One thing's sure, by the time Carole and company reached the last number, "I Feel the Earth Move," the opening night audience at Beautiful was on their collective feet, clapping and dancing, arms waving in the air, and laughing with each other at the sheer delight of moving and singing along to a really good song.