by Julian Spivey
The early life and career of Carole King was brought to life on the stage of the Robinson Performance Hall in Little Rock, Ark. from May 29-June 3 in the terrific “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
The show featuring the music of King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a book by Douglas McGrath was brought to town by Celebrity Attractions, which brings a series of Broadway musicals to Robinson annually.
‘Beautiful’ debuted on Broadway in 2014 to much success that included winning a Tony Award for Jessie Mueller, the first actress to portray King on stage. The musical was also nominated for a Tony for Best Musical, losing out to “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.’
The touring production of ‘Beautiful’ features the wonderful performance by Sarah Bockel as King, from the age of 16 in 1958 through her Carnegie Hall performance in 1971 following the massive success of Tapestry, where she solidified herself as a talented performer and not just a songwriter relying on her partnership with first husband Goffin (played by Andrew Brewer).
Being a jukebox musical, ‘Beautiful’ is mostly performances of late ‘50s/’60s pop hits, written by King and Goffin as well as rival songwriting duo Mann and Weil, with snippets of dialogue, drama and some comedy mixed in. It’s during these dramatic parts that we learn about King’s early life as a songwriter and first marriage to Goffin and friendship/friendly rivalry with Mann (played by Jacob Heimer) and Weil (played by Sarah Goeke).
Having never previously familiarized myself with ‘Beautiful’ it was surprising to find how much of the musical is dedicated to this fascinating songwriting rivalry between the two songwriting couples at Don Kirshner’s (played by James Clow) 1650 Broadway publishing company. It’s almost a dangerous decision on the part of creator McGrath as there are times when the comic relief of the Mann character almost steals the show. There are even times when the performances of songs written by Mann and Weil almost steal the show. The 2 p.m. matinee showing on Saturday, June 2 that I attended seemed to have the biggest round of applause following The Righteous Brothers’ (played by John Michael Dias and Nathan Scherich) performance of the Mann/Weil composed “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” which is interesting because of all the performances in the show it’s the one that least sounded like the original artists. I will say that Dias’ brief performance as Neil Sedaka was one of the funniest bits of the musical.
Bockel’s performance as King was terrific. The performances were incredibly realistic – my favorite was the show opening “So Far Away” – and she had King’s Brooklyn accent down pat. In another somewhat risky decision it’s Brewer’s performance as Goffin that’s almost the showiest of the performance as he’s the character with the most change during the show, going from stuck up academic with playwright dreams to suffering from mental illness that kills his marriage. He’s almost played off as the bad guy in the musical – and I believe the audience accepts him as that – but, ultimately, he’s just a flawed individual. And, without Goffin’s flaws we’d likely never end up with King striking out on her own and creating Tapestry.
The music of a jukebox musical is going to be hit-or-miss depending on how you feel about it to begin with, but I greatly enjoyed the performances of King and Goffin smashes like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (my favorite song King/Goffin wrote) performed by The Shirelles and “Up on the Roof” as performed by Goffin introducing it to King before nicely going into the recorded version by The Drifters. I also really enjoyed Mann’s introduction of the more serious, keeping up with the times “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” which is one of my favorite tracks by The Animals.
All in all, ‘Beautiful’ was pretty much as its title says. It was nice to see the early days of the most prolific female songwriter in the history of pop music and the growth of her career to solo stardom. If you ever have the opportunity to check it out, I’d highly recommend it.