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Review: BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at Ogunquit Playhouse

Review: BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL at Ogunquit Playhouse

The story of a songwriting icon

When watching Beautiful- The Carole King Musical at the Ogunquit Playhouse, there's one consistent comment from theater goers.

"I didn't know they wrote that song."

The show is a revealing story about pop music icon, Carole King. While many know of her success as a solo vocalist and song writer after releasing the album, "Tapestry," few will know about her previous career as part of a songwriting team that produced a string of hits in the 1960s. (Today, more than 400 of her compositions have been recorded by over 1,000 artists resulting in 100 single hits and six Grammy awards.)

The story begins with 16-year-old high school freshman, Carole King (Sarah Bockel) and her dream of becoming a songwriter. She can write the music but needs a bit of help with the lyrics. She soon meets a fellow high school student (he's a junior), Gerry Goffin (Anthony Festa) who is a poet and lyricist at heart looking for a musical collaborator. The stars align as King and Goffin start a high school romance that first blossoms into a music writing partnership, followed by an eventual marriage when King finds herself pregnant at 16.

Together, Goffin and King created some of the best-known tunes to ever hit the charts in the 1960s and 1970s with encouragement from music producer, Don Kirschner (Matt Loehr). Their first #1 hit was "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," sung by the Shirelles. King is 17 years old at the time. Other notables are "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," and a slew of other tunes all performed by legendary groups like The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers.

"I didn't know they wrote that song."

Their success is paralleled by their best friends and song writer competitors, Cynthia Weil (Taylor Aronson) and Barry Mann (Ben Jacoby). This couple's journey, too, includes a nonstop array of hits. There's "On Broadway," "Walking in the Rain," "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

"I didn't know they wrote that song."

There's wonderful energy in the show as Goffin and King try to outdo Mann and Weil by comparing stats on how many top hits each one owns and how long they have stayed high on the music charts. It's a nice story arc that they are all friends, first, but fierce rivals in the competitive music industry.

The show is clearly a jukebox musical (Think "Mamma Mia!" or "Million Dollar Quartet") but with a nice creative twist. You see the beginnings of song writing as the composers play out the first versions of their tunes on a beat-up spinet piano while dreaming of stardom. These scenes play out simply and quietly often followed with the slick stage performances performed by the top artists in the industry. It is a nice contrast that's used effectively throughout this show.

And while the jukebox tunes drive the action, especially in Act 1, there's all the while a story playing out drawing viewers into Carole King's marriage and birth of two daughters, played against a husband with a wandering eye for other women and an intense anxiety to stay on top of the music scene with competition from the likes of emerging rock n roll groups like the Beatles.

The second act concentrates on King's second career as a solo artist and songwriter who moves from New York to make it big in Los Angeles. It makes for well-balanced story telling.

The show is gifted with an amazing cast of singers, dancers and musicians playing in small vignette scenes or polished numbers as idols of the musical world. The recreations of groups like The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers are perfection. There's even a performance by Little Eva (Gabrielle Elisabeth) who apparently started as a babysitter for Goffin and King.

As Weil, Aronson is bright eyed, bubbly, and blond beautiful with an upbeat look at everything. As her suitor, Jacoby is a nervous energy hypochondriac determined to marry her even after many refusals. This team makes a cute couple and shine in their number, "Walking in the Rain," while Jacoby charms the audience with sharp witted comic jabs.

Loehr portrays a warm and welcoming character as the record producer, making it look easier than ever to break into the music business.

As King's mother, Genie Klein, Suzanne Grodner is pure delight. Who doesn't love a Jewish mother who hates her ex-husband, is overbearing to her daughter, and is full of contradictory advice?

Festa, as Goffin, is a powerful vocalist, who creates a convincing troubled soul collapsing under the pressures of marriage during a fast-evolving time to be in the music business. You want to like his character even as he makes tons of terrible life decisions.

Bockel, who played the role of Carole King on Broadway and in the national tour of the show, shows her veteran experience at every turn playing the character from an awkward 16-year-old to a doting mother and on to a woman in crisis who discovers her true self and makes her own success.

Her portrayal of the famed musical artist is nothing short of spectacular. Her vocals sound like King without being a carbon copy of her. She looks enough like the musical icon to take on her persona, especially when she first appears on stage with the trademark frilly coif. And when it comes to pounding out the tunes on the piano, Bockel is clearly at home and in her element. What could easily become a stale imitation of the real-life Carole King, doesn't happen because Bockel captures the essence of King and makes her own portrayal genuine. Her showstoppers include "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "It's Too Late," "Natural Woman," and the show finale, "Beautiful."

The set is at its best when depicting the busy office building that houses a recording studio, rehearsal rooms, and offices with creative minds tackling musical collaborations often with insane timelines. The backdrop curtain with instruments, musical notes, and sound equipment is brilliantly crafted.

With many actors playing their own instruments (Think "Million Dollar Quartet" for a second time.) the talent does double and triple duty showing off their acting, dancing, and musical prowess.

The play ends with a fitting moment in time when Carole King appears at Carnegie Hall after the success of her album, "Tapestry." She's in her glory after winning Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards.

See this show and relive a time and place in musical history that has yet to be repeated.

Photo: Gary Ng



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