By Cate Marquis, Staff Writer
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” made its St. Louis debut on February 23, for a run through March 6. The Broadway musical tells the story of singer/songwriter Carole King’s early years, starting as a 16-year-old songwriter cranking out hit tunes in the 1960s.
Carole King fans turned out in force opening night to hear the musical, featuring 25 hit songs including “Beautiful” and “You’ve Got A Friend,” as well as earlier hits such as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” “Chains,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” songs made hits by The Shirelles, The Beatles, and The Monkees. Carole wrote the music but some might not know that her songwriting partner/husband Gerry Goffin wrote the lyrics, even to women’s songs “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
The musical tells the story of her early days, ending when she becomes a star performing her own work in the early 1970s. It opens with Carole King (Abby Mueller) playing her hit “So Far Away” and remembering the past. The scene shifts, with Carole and her piano sliding off stage and a new set rolling in, representing her Brooklyn girlhood home. There, 16-year-old Carole Klein lives with her divorced mother Genie (Suzanne Grodner), attending college and studying to become a teacher despite her young age. But all she really wants to do is write pop songs.
Carole gets her break when she has the chance to pitch a song under the name Carole King to New York music producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril). At that time, singers did not write their own songs but got them from music producers. Songwriters played their songs for producers, who bought them for a variety of musicians.
Kirchner buys her song, but then he wants more. At college, Carole meets Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin on February 23 to 28, and Andrew Brewer on March 1 to 6). Gerry is studying to be a chemist but what he really wants is to be is a writer. He and Carole make a deal—she will write the tunes and he will write the lyrics. The songwriting partnership clicks, and soon Carole and Gerry are also clicking romantically.
The musical follows their personal life and career, with their careers on a steadier upward path than their rocky personal lives. Along the way, we get performances of their hits, as well as hits by their friends: rival songwriting team Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser).
Fans will know all these hits but if the songs of “Beautiful” are unfamiliar to you, this might not be the show for you. “Jersey Boys” started this biographical musical trend, and “Beautiful” owes a debt to that show, particularly for its innovative staging of televised concerts. However, “Beautiful” lacks the dramatic edge of “Jersey Boys,” where the Four Seasons’ bouncy songs contrasted with the tale of gangsters, gambling, and prison. “Beautiful” has a much tamer story behind the songs, where a girl from Brooklyn writes pop hits and marries her songwriting partner, who works as a chemist as they live with her mother until they hit it big. It culminates in suburbia, kids, infidelity, and a career crisis over writing for a band created for a TV sitcom (“The Monkees”). It is personally tragic stuff for Carole and Gerry, but hardly the fiery material that drove “Jersey Boys.”
For Carole King fans, none of that matters. It is all about Mueller’s winning, affecting performance as the singer/songwriter, the snappy zinger-filled dialog, and the songs. All the cast is terrific and the songs are wonderfully performed in little theatrical productions with glittery costumes, shimmering backdrops, and all the hot dance moves. The large, multi-level, movable set serves as theater, concert club, characters’ offices or homes, and other locations, in appealing fashion. The audience is transported back in time to the heyday of dressed-to-kill Motown singing groups.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is a must-see for her fans, and a good bet for fans of Motown. It is a warm-hearted stroll down that memory lane, with all the romance and heartbreak found in Carole King’s early hit songs.