BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Will Move the Earth Under Your Feet at AT&T Performing Arts Center
Leaving the Winspear Opera House after a performance of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, you would never know that the singer-songwriter's greatest hits were recorded over fifty years ago. On opening night, I overheard one young woman raving to her mother about how much she enjoyed the music and how impressed she was that King never let her own fame get to her head. Another teen told her father she related to King's struggles to recognize her own self-worth after numerous personal and professional setbacks. These brief conversations - two of many that were had that night, I'm sure - are a testament to the inspirational power of Carole King's life story as well as her music.
As BEAUTIFUL returns to Dallas, it is immediately clear that the musical has lost none of its freshness, remaining just as much of a rousing hit as it was when it first toured in the area several years ago. The current production runs through June 23 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
BEAUTIFUL tells the life story of Carole King (Sarah Bockel) from the sale of her first songs in the late 1950s to the release of her smash-hit solo album, Tapestry, in 1971. These years include her productive collaboration and tumultuous marriage with her first husband Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach) as well as the couple's friendly feud with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer). The hits of King, Goffin, Weil, and Mann fill the musical to bursting from beginning to end, including toe-tapping singles such as "It Might as Well Rain Until September," "Some Kind of Wonderful," and "The Locomotion."
Songs such as these may not always advance the plot, but they do make for such a fun time that audiences will hardly mind the nostalgia trip. It helps that many of these numbers are brought to life by the production's youthful and enthusiastic ensemble. These talented men and women, embodying the spirit of classic groups such as The Drifters and The Shirelles, bring so much energy to their performances that decades-old songs feel as though they're being sung for the first time. Their harmonies are as tight as a well-tuned piano, and they execute Josh Prince's fast-paced and intricate choreography without missing a beat or losing a breath. Audience favorites from the evening included "On Broadway" and an exquisite rendition of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" that might be even better than The Righteous Brothers' original.
While King and her colleagues provide the show's soundtrack, audiences are responsible for providing the laugh track, an easy task given how delightfully clever the script is. Much of the humor is provided by James Clow and Suzanne Grodner as King's boss Don Kirshner and mother Genie Klein, respectively. Both performers play tough but loving parental figures with strength, compassion, and a devilish sense of irony.
Equally funny are Heimer as the lovably neurotic Barry Mann and Whitehurst as the brashly outspoken Cynthia Weil. The two develop excellent chemistry together over the course of the show, trading witty barbs with one another with the lightning speed and precise delivery of a vaudeville duo (or, alternatively, a bestselling songwriting duo). Their voices blend together even more smoothly than their lines, with Heimer's rock tenor and Whitehurst's classic Broadway mezzo vocals mixing nicely in "He's Sure the Boy I Love" and "Walking in the Rain."
As fun as these characters may be to play, few present a greater challenge than the role of Gerry Goffin, King's first husband and songwriting partner who frequently cheated on her and subjected her to the worst manifestations of his manic-depressive illness. Given the script alone, it can be easy to present Goffin as nothing more than a two-dimensional deadbeat, but Dylan S. Wallach's acting choices humanize the role to an impressive degree that I have not seen from other performers in the same part. Wallach's Goffin is charming but troubled, showing a sincere tenderness for his wife contrasted by the fear apparent in his eyes when he lashes out at her for his own inadequacies. Part of the tragedy of the character is that Goffin himself is not totally aware of what he is doing, a fact frequently made clear by Wallach's tense and erratic movements and faltering speech. Such a riveting and insightful performance may not excuse Goffin's behavior, but it does begin to help audiences to understand it. Wallach's acting choices are equally matched by his soothingly pleasant voice in numbers such as "Take Good Care of My Baby" and "Up on the Roof" that make it no small surprise that King falls for him so quickly and completely.
Of course, BEAUTIFUL is - first and foremost - a vehicle for the actress playing Carole King to bring the singer-songwriter's charisma and enthusiasm to life in such a way that audiences of all ages leave feeling inspired and empowered. In this regard, Sarah Bockel has gone all the way, earning her number one spot on the top of the charts (and the top of the metaphorical marquee). Bockel's best quality is her comforting warmth, a trait that draws the audience into her confidence from the musical's opening number all the way to its earth-shaking curtain call. And while her performance will leave no doubt as to why Carole King stands as a titan of her industry, Bockel keeps the character firmly grounded, finding stunning moments in the show where King's seemingly unshakeable confidence comes tumbling down, especially in her many scenes with Wallach. The couple's initial courtship scene is as sweet and sexy as their final reconciliation is bittersweet yet hopeful, and both serve to remind viewers that this American icon is still very much a real person. Furthermore, Bockel sings King's greatest hits with real, raw emotion, not merely performing them but living them through an expression of the full breadth of human experience. While all of her numbers are notable, she brought tears of sadness and joy to many an eye after "One Fine Day," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and the musical's triumphant finale, "Beautiful."
Though she claims to have retired from the music industry, Carole King laid out her philosophy of life and art in her autobiography just two years before the musical of her life story hit Broadway stages. In it, she says, "I still believe that everyone is beautiful in some way and by seeing the beauty in others we make ourselves more beautiful." If this is true (and I'm inclined to believe that it is), BEAUTIFUL gives audiences from all walks of life and all generations to see themselves and the world as more... well, beautiful.