Pictured: Julia Knitel. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Review: BEAUTIFUL National Tour at The Music Hall
By Marie Warner
I have always been a fan of 1970’s singer-songwriters. I used to play the piano. I have wild, wavy hair. So loving Carole King came very naturally to me, and spending an evening with the national tour of BEAUTIFUL was a pretty good substitute for seeing Carole in action.
BEAUTIFUL focuses primarily on King’s relationship with her husband, Gerry Goffin, with whom she wrote some of the most prolific pop songs of the era. King and Goffin met and were married when King was 17. Goffin’s infidelity and drug use contributed to the eventual end of their marriage, but their musical relationship was undeniably successful. With King composing the music and Goffin writing lyrics, their collaboration produced such hits as “One Fine Day,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
BEAUTIFUL also features many important musical figures of the time. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann were friends with Goffin and King as well as competing songwriters. The Brill Building was a hub of music industry talent at the time, and producers like Don Kirshner would use the competitive environment to push their writers to greater heights. As songs were often written with specific artists in mind, we get glimpses of studio sessions and glitzy performances by groups like The Drifters, The Shirelles, and The Righteous Brothers.
Goffin and King’s marital woes drive the action of the play, while Weil and Mann serve as a contrast (Weil and Mann are still married and writing together). The book is not particularly strong, and while I know that many of the events that took place must have been tragic at the time, they don’t feel very well fleshed out here. I found Weil and Mann more interesting than King and Goffin, and the show ends just as King is finally coming into her own. But as with any jukebox musical, we are here for the music. The plot mainly serves as some trivia filler. It is hard to go wrong with some of the greatest songs of all time, and this cast does them justice.
The show opens with a TAPESTRY-era Carole at the piano, presumably playing her famed Carnegie Hall concert. From there we go back in time to her early songwriting days and her introduction to Goffin. The first big number is “1650 Broadway Medley,” which is also our introduction to the Brill Building, and it is absolutely electrifying. A scaffolding set features the ensemble in the various “rooms” of the building working on songs. It is a glorious cacophony of sound. As we progress throughout the rest of the show, we alternate primarily between the songwriters working in the brown and tan rooms of the Brill Building and the dazzling performances of their work.
As Carole King, Julia Knitel is sympathetic, self-effacing and a powerhouse vocalist. While she sings throughout, she really shines in the second act, mirroring King’s emergence as a solo artist. Liam Tobin as Goffin has less material to work with, but succeeds in making us all dislike his character. While the real Gerry Goffin was complimentary of the musical, I have to wonder if he was just saving face, as this is not a flattering portrayal of him. Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser are sharp, funny and sing beautifully as Weil and Mann, however, the ensemble frequently steals the show. The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers numbers were particularly impressive.
I will confess to being a little bit snobby, and not a great fan of jukebox musicals. However, as I saw the older, rather crotchety gentleman beside me wiping away tears during “You’ve Got a Friend,” I could not help but warm to the idea. I haven’t heard an audience respond like this in a very long time. With the first notes of songs like “It’s Too Late” murmurs and gasps rose from the crowd. Spontaneous applause broke out. No, the book is not terrific. My response to some very sad moments in Carole King’s story was tepid at best. But the music is undeniably great, and this cast does an excellent job. It won’t change your life, but it might give you a thrill, making BEAUTIFUL an overall enjoyable night of theater.
WARNING: You will have the overwhelming urge to sing along to many of these songs. I strongly encourage you to fight that impulse. Your fellow audience members CAN hear you and they WILL hate you.