THEATER REVIEW: “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” @ Proctors
Review by Greg Haymes
The mega-success of her 1971 solo debut album, Tapestry, will unquestionably be the lasting legacy of Carole King. The multi-platinum slab o’ vinyl earned her four Grammy Awards (including the Big 3: Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Songs of the Year) and spent a whopping 313 weeks on Billboard’s Album Chart – 15 of those weeks in the No. 1 spot.
But there’s a lot more to her story than just that blockbuster, and that’s what “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is all about in a knock-out production at Proctors in Schenectady through Sunday (April 16).
“Beautiful” could have easily been nothing more than another cliched jukebox musical gathering together the hits by songwriters of the Brill Building era, i.e., “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (Leiber and Stoller) or “Leader of the Pack” (Ellie Greenwich). But thanks to some smart, comic dialogue by Douglas McGrath, deft direction by Marc Bruni and strong, all-around performances by the cast, “Beautiful” is a snappy musical that rises above the level of the usual jukebox musical expectations.
The production begins with 16-year-old Carole Klein (her real name) selling her first song, “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” to music publisher-producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), and the play moves swiftly through her meeting and marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) and their rise to the top of the charts, penning hits for Bobby Vee, the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva and plenty of others.
For any baby-boomer, those songs – including “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up on the Roof” and the masterful “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” – are ingrained in the generation’s collective psyche, and the production does a fine job of presenting the songs without slavishly adhering to the original recordings – a delicate tightrope walk with such well-known and beloved songs. Led by music director-conductor-keyboardist Susan Draus, the 13-piece pit band is on the money.
Of course, the show requires a powerhouse performer in the role of Carole King, and Julia Knitel steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park, walking the thin line between confidence and insecurity, love and despair before ultimately claiming her place in the spotlight.
But it’s not all about King, and the title of the show is something of a misnomer. The secondary couple – portraying the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) – and their music is crucial. And ironically, it’s the towering Mann/Weil song “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” (sung by Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias as the Righteous Brothers) that emerges as the most powerful song in the show, overshadowing King’s music.
The musical is about centered around the themes of independence and empowerment, and the loudest applause of opening night occurred when King finally sent the philandering Goffin packing.
Director Bruni keeps the action moving at a brisk pace with the aid of the superb scenic design and astonishingly zippy stagecraft of Derek McLane as well as the quick-change costuming of Alejo Vietti.
The two and half-hour performance doesn’t try to cover King’s whole life or even her musical career. In fact, the show spans only 13 years of her life – and it skips quickly over much of that, as well – but “Beautiful” does it with the same sort of open-hearted emotion that Knitel throws into her performance and King packed into her music.
And what great music it is…
Bob Goepfert’s review at The Troy Record
Paul Lamar’s review at The Daily Gazette
Excerpt from Steve Barnes’ review at The Times Union: “Though formulaic in structure and diminished by sometimes groaningly obvious humor — the book is by film director and screenwriter Douglas McGrath — the show is a feel-good triumph with an irresistibly tuneful song list. When the eponymous songwriter is responsible for hits including ‘So Far Away,’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ ‘Up on the Roof,’ ‘The Locomotion’ and more than 100 others, baby boomers in the audience will thrill to the soundtrack of their youth in a show featuring more than two dozen of those tunes. Directed with panache and speedy pacing by Marc Bruni, ‘Beautiful’ starts and ends at Carnegie Hall in 1971. King, then 29 and a dozen-year veteran of the songwriting business, with millions of albums sold containing her songs recorded by other artists, performed at the fabled venue in what was her first major concert.”