Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is a jubilant celebration of the singer-songwriter’s life and work. Whether you can know every word of her songs or only the chorus of “Natural Woman,” this musical will move you and leave you humming her tunes.
The musical follows Carole King from her early musical career to the success of her most famous album, Tapestry. As the story progresses, King’s most famous songs are teased and delivered to the audience as a surprise and delight. Each song is presented in a way that tells King’s story better than mere words ever could.
The show is about more than just about King and her life, however. The first act is a love letter to the music of the 1960s, highlighting a number of songs and performers, especially King’s close friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. With hits such as “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway” and “Uptown,” Mann and Weil provide more amazing songs to the already hit-packed show.
Sarah Bockel, in the title role of Carole King, gives an emotional and heartwarming performance. While her vocals are not as close to King’s as the original Broadway actress, Bockel portrays the songwriter’s naivety at the start of the show as convincingly as her pain and resilient spirit at the end. There’s a very thin emotional line to walk with this character. The audience has to believe her love for her husband from their meeting through most of the show, despite his various transgressions, until she hits her breaking point. It’s key to the success of the show that the audience agrees with her emotional reactions and Bockel is great at that job.
The scenic design is also fabulous. With relatively few set pieces, Derek McLane creates a wide variety of locations. Several scenes include one piano rotating between the offices of two songwriting teams with an impressive ease and ingenuity. The show flows flawlessly with Marc Bruni’s direction and McLane’s sets moving seamlessly on and off stage. The pace stays fast and consistent even during emotionally heavy scenes and scenes centered around pianos which can be very hard to stage.
Beautiful is joyful and bursting with the excitement and beauty of the 1960s and 70s, even when dealing with less savory side of those decades. Whether or not you were alive during that time, the show creates a feeling of nostalgia without laying it on too thick. I would suggest brushing up on the songs of that time especially those of King, Goffin, Weil and Mann. Although it’s certainly possible to go through the show with no prior knowledge of the songs, knowing the songbook makes each song feel like a delightful present the cast has wrapped up for you to enjoy.
Most of all, the show is fun. There’s very little to criticize. Beautiful is not revolutionary in any way—the songs are already hits and the genre has already been explored by Dreamgirls and Jersey Boys—but the story is good, the music is catchy and it’s a great night out. Every once in a while, you just need a good, fun show.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is playing at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts at 255 S. Almaden Blvd., November 14-19, 2017. Ticket prices range from $43 to $128. The show runs about two and a half hours with one intermission.
Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy