BEAUTIFUL The Carole King MusicalBook by Douglas McGrath
Words and Music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Sarah Bockel as Carole King
Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry Goffin
Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia Weil
Jacob Heiner as Barry Mann
James Clow as Don Kirshner
Suzanne Grodner as Genia Klein
Ben Biggers, Darius Delk, John Michael Dias, Leandra Ellis-Gaston, Kaylee Harwood, Willie Hill, Alia Hodge, James Michael Lambert, Harper Miles, Dimitri Joseph Moise, Aashley Morgan, Deon Releford-Lee, Paul Scanlan, Avery Smith, DeAnne Stewart, Danielle J. Summons, Alexis Tidwell, Elise Vannerson
Directed by Marc Bruni
Choreographed by Josh Prince
Music Director -- Susan Draus
Production Stage Manager -- Joel Rosen
Music Coordinator -- John Miller
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Alejo Vietti
Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design by Brian Ronan
Wig and Hair Design by Charles G. LaPointe
Make-Up Design by Joe Dulude II
Associate Director -- Shelley Butler
Associate Choreographer -- Joyce Chittick
Orchestrations, Vocal and Music Arrangements -- Steve Sidwell
Music Supervision and Additional Music Arrangements -- Jason Howland
Conductor/Keys – Susan Draus
Assoc Conductor/Keys Aaron Benham
Drums – Larry Steppler
Guitar 1 – Oscar Bautista
Local Musicians – Jeff Lankov, Sam Walker, Paul Unger, Drew Lang, Joe Eckert, Jim Pritchard, Keith Jourdan, Jon Hinton, Mary Medrick.
Reviewed Performance: 6/18/2019
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Based on King’s life and music, “Beautiful” is a fun and emotionally moving retro journey that starts in the late 1950s when Brooklynite Carole bucks her mother’s wish for her to be a teacher by selling her first song to mogul Don Kirshner (played with great ear for getting the laughs by James Clow) at the Brill Building, which at the time was the epicenter for youth pop records. One of the early numbers of this play, “1650 Broadway Medley” showcases the incredible fast-moving two-story modular set that slides the action along at a rapid pace and also shows off a creative staging and direction by Marc Bruni that kept this musical hopping along at light speed. It also showcased the uber-talented ensemble, who took turns having their moments in the spotlight, each with superb clear vocals. It is here in the iconic midtown Manhattan building that Carole and her young husband Gerry Goffin meet up with the couple with whom they will become best friends and best rivals with – Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
This smart set-up of having not just one, but two composer/lyricist couples to follow as their careers bloom allows this musical to cull from an astonishing array of pop classics. These include “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day,” and the incredible “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by King and Goffin as well as Mann/Weil hits such as “On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” A fun moment in this very entertaining musical is when King and her husband Gerry turn to their babysitter to find inspiration for who should sing their ‘train song’ that starts out; “Everybody’s doin’ a brand-new dance now, come baby do the…” “I have no idea,” replies the babysitter. “Come on, Little Eva, think!” It was hilarious, and led to a fantastic rendition of “The Loco-Motion” complete with dance moves straight out of an episode of “American Bandstand.” Little Eva was indeed the Goffin’s perky babysitter in real life, and ensemble member Alexis Tidwell shone in this iconic number.
As the musical enters its second act, a new sound led by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones is invading King and Goffin’s 3-minute song pop world, creating challenges for them that eventually lead to a break up, and something more – King finding the courage to sing her own songs. This of course led to the incredible album that all of us of a certain age played non-stop on our turntables, “Tapestry” with songs like “It’s Too Late,”“You’ve Got a Friend,” and the iconic anthem “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Aside from the familiar and beloved songs, it is the performances, especially that of Sarah Bockel as King that shine. Bockel makes herself into a dead ringer for Carole King in vocal patterns, gestures and emotional landscape. It is incredibly moving to see the transformation of her from a girl who gets pregnant young and yearns to be a good mother and wife preferably in the suburbs to the artist we know she will become. Part of this musical’s appeal is that knowing – that despite the troubles, that she will succeed. It makes for a very comforting, enjoyable evening. King’s era-induced sublimation to her handsome, mercurial husband played with startling erraticism by the vocally talented Dylan S. Wallach is sad to see, but also completely understandable in terms of how she was raised. When she finally breaks from her philandering husband saying, “The girls deserve something better. And you know what? So do I!” brought cheers from the audience. Seeing the roots of songs we have loved for many decades, the pain from which they were borne, makes them all the sweeter. This is the musical’s true gift – allowing us to peek inside the creation of art, art that was created from the darkest places, but that now serves to uplift and inspire. Brockel’s carefully modulated, modest performance allows us to see this evolution beautifully and she is completely appealing throughout the journey. Her final, brave effort to sing a song whose lyrics were penned by her husband in a happier time was an emotional roller coaster, albeit one that had the audience swaying and nodding along happily. I doubt that I will listen to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” the same way again. Her vocals throughout were impeccable.
King’s mother, Genie Klein was played by Suzanne Grodner the night we saw the show (she will be played by Kaylee Harwood on 6/23) and she was flat-out hilarious. Nailing every Jewish mother joke she was given, she was also compassionate when her daughter needed her to be the most. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she says the wrong thing,” muses Carole. “But that one time…” It’s a delightful performance. The other “straight” role with little singing to do was that of Don Kirshner played effortlessly by the very tall James Clow. He had the businessman with a greedy heart of gold down pat, and was also spot-on with his delivery of his funny lines.
Dylan S. Wallach did an outstanding job with the role of Gerry Goffin, the sexy, handsome husband and lyricist to King. In particular his telling of the origin story of “Up on the Roof” was moving and telling. His clear vocals soared in the excellent acoustical space of the Winspear, one of the finest voices of the night. You wanted to hate the guy, but Wallach’s performance made you understand his angst just enough that you could see why King loved him, and stayed with him for so long.
When tiny Alison Whitehurst bursts onto the stage early in the first act as Cynthia Weil to convince Don Kirshner he should bring her on as a lyricist, you could immediately tell she was a take-no-prisoners type of gal, which she proved over and over again in her energetic, memorable performance. Her belt voice is phenomenal as she does her rendition of “Happy Days are Here Again” and wins over Kirshner and our entire audience with her pure joy of performance. Whitehurst is a talented performer who got her BFA in Theatre Performance from Texas Christian and she is someone to look out for in the coming years. She is one bucketful of talent.
The neurotic, hypochondriac man who becomes Weil’s partner and eventual (after much persuading) husband, Barry Mann is played to perfection by Jacob Heimer. He has a surprisingly powerful voice which he got to use to full effect when he whipped out a guitar and slammed into “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” He is by turns funny and dear, and is a memorable part of this musical.
The ensemble appears in many roles, and their brisk pace and help with the scene changes are the epitome of well-choreographed stage movement. Their depiction of famous pop groups such as The Shirelles, The Drifters, and the Righteous Brothers are spot-on not only vocally but they have been choreographed to perfection by Josh Prince. Standouts include John Michael Dias as Neil Sedaka – not only did he sound and look like the singer -- he had his moves down to a T. This role will be played by James Michael Lambert on 6/23. Other notable performances from within the talented group include Paul Scanlan as a deep-voiced singer and later as a gentle guitar player, and Harper Miles as the lead singer for The Shirelles.
Kudos to the excellent set design by Derek McLane – it was a highlight of the evening to see the quick, smooth transitions move us from one place and one era to another in a seemingly effortless way. Ditto for the lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski, which perfectly matched mood to sound, and at times made the audience feel as if we were the ones onstage, singing along to the memorable music. A shout-out must be made to Charles G LaPointe and his wig and hair design, he had us all remembering when we had THAT haircut.
At the end of the day, what comes through the remarkable book by Douglas McGrath (he also penned films such as “Emma,” “Infamous,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” and “Bullets Over Broadway”) is that this production is much more than a simple jukebox come to life onstage with talented performers and terrific production design. It is an intimate, complex portrait of a shy, talented woman who travelled a very long way to play at Carnegie Hall, and who has blessed and enriched us all by her artistry and bravery. This is a terrific show, grab yourself a ticket if you can.