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Julia Knitel as Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Carole King is an American treasure: a singer/songwriter of much renown, she possesses the showbiz bona fides that place her among the highest echelons of creative endeavor and for more than 50 years, she has provided the soundtrack for the lives of so many of us that you can't help but be caught up in an emotional fervor of remembrance and revelry when you hear one of her hit songs.

However, if you're sitting in a darkened theater, hearing song after song that has resonated with you since adolescence, tunes that have seen you through a myriad of personal experiences, be forewarned: those tears in your eyes (the ones you have to physically battle to keep from overflowing lest you "ugly cry" your way through the end of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) can be off-putting to those seated around you. Take it from me, Beautiful is tremendously entertaining and astonishingly cathartic.

Should you find yourself, on the morning after experiencing the musical, contending with the unrelenting earworm of "One Fine Day," we suggest you take it stride and thank your lucky stars that you have lived in a world set to the music of Carole King.

BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Captivates NashvilleNow onstage at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall through Sunday, May 28, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a splendid example of the particularly theatrical practice of finding a composer's catalogue of songs and fashioning a story and then a show around those tunes. Known pejoratively as "jukebox musicals," revues of that ilk can either sink or swim, it would seem when considering the shows that have come and gone, but some - Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia! come readily to mind - transcend the mundane and predictable to become top-flight examples of musical theater achievement.

Performed with energy and passion by a skilled ensemble of performers, led by Julia Knitel as Carole King, Liam Tobin as Gerry Goffin, Erika Olson as Cynthia Weil, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann and James Clow as Don Kirshner, Beautiful is a fast-paced cavalcade of musical memories of the last century presented in a beautifully designed production that unspools onstage with a cinematic sensibility that is engaging and captivating.

Clearly, you can add Beautiful to the list of those musicals that tell a compelling story, set to popular music that will send you out of the theater with a smile on your face and a song in your heart, perhaps with the notion of turning around, re-entering the theater and doing the whole thing over again. That's how good Beautiful is and how we felt after the curtain rang down on opening night of the national touring company's production at TPAC.

King's inspiring, if slightly improbable in this day and age, story of how 16-year-old Carol Klein became the iconic Carole King is the stuff of musical legend: she marched into the office of entertainment mogul Don Kirshner, brandishing a newly written song that he bought on the spot, guaranteeing her a section of the Great American Songbook. Her subsequent pairing with Gerry Goffin, their noteworthy creative partnership and tumultuous marriage, provide a story of dramatic import and universal themes of love and life that makes it ideal for the stage.

Julia Knitel, Erika Olson, Ben Fankhauser and Liam Tobin

And how lucky are we, as the collective audience, that she has opened up her life for such an intimate and heartfelt examination? Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is so much more than a recollection of her rise to superstardom set to a score of her biggest hit songs. Rather, it's an emotionally charged and unflinching look at a marriage of two tremendously imaginative and creative people perhaps too ill-prepared to live both public and private lives. In telling that complex story of how two young people from Booklyn grew into one of pop music's best-known collaborative teams, Beautiful reveals how harsh the spotlight can become and, perhaps more evocatively, the importance of personal loyalty and friendship in the growth of a romantic relationship or any professional endeavor.

Knitel is delightful as Carole, embodying the slightly awkward yet astoundingly confident woman to perfection. While her voice lacks the gravelly/growly texture so often noted in King's performances, she very intelligently eschews mimicry for a more authentic evocation of the singer's phrasing and inherent artistry. From her first moments onstage - the show is bookended by an onstage retelling of King's Carnegie Hall performance that followed her four Grammy wins for Tapestry and her emergence as an artist in her own right - as a teenager to her closing scenes as a more mature young woman in her early 30s, Knitel portrays the King represented in book writer Douglas McGrath's sharply written script with a lack of guile and a surfeit of charm.

James Clow, Liam Tobin, Julia Knitel, Ben Fankhauser
and Erika Olson

Perhaps a confession of sorts is required: When I was in seventh grade, my sister gave me my first record album (that wasn't owned by a sibling, but by me), Carole King's Tapestry. I played it incessantly as a teenager and it remains one of my most beloved possessions (when I gave away my collection of vinyl to a lovely young friend mesmerized by her first record player a few years back, the one thing I kept was Tapestry. So, when Knitel sat down at her stage piano and I heard the first notes of "It's Too Late," I very nearly disintegrated into a puddle of sentimental tears, hushed recriminations and shattered regret. The takeaway? I, most assuredly, am part of Beautiful's target demographic.

Leaving the theater, therefore, I realized I left it just a little bit in love with Julia Knitel. She is swell.

Having just as big an impact, however, was Liam Tobin as Gerry Goffin. Handsome, charming, rather beguiling in his intellectual manner, Tobin's Goffin is a confounding collection of personal paradoxes: You can't help but be attracted to him, as easily as Carole was/is, but you also cannot deny the pain and heartache someone such as he could inflict on someone such as she. The sheer drama of their relationship, as revealed onstage, ensures the show's conflict will engage its audience. Tobin's impressive voice adds depth to his rendition of "Up On the Roof," in which Gerry unmasks himself to Carole.

Ben Fankhauser and Erika Olson

As dramatic and professional counterparts to King and Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (played with nimble dexterity by the altogether versatile Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser) offer a somewhat comedic/lighter divertissement, providing context for the relationship of the play's two leading characters. Olson's quick-witted Cynthia provides the contrast of a more contemporary woman to King's more traditional character, which makes their friendship seem far more genuine than might be expected. Mann's quintessential stage presence is enviable, but he somehow is able to hew closely to edge of theatrical artifice only to pull it back with his tremendous focus on presenting a character who is truly believable.

Special note should be made of the sweetly satisfying performance of "You've Got a Friend" that comes near the end of Act Two, to herald Carole's planned move to California. As performed by Knitel, Olson, Fankhauser and Clow it is, quite simply, exactly what a true fan could wish for, a tribute to shared life and love that reverberates long past the final curtain.

Among the supporting cast, Suzanne Grodner (looking for all the world like a youthful Ethel Merman) is wonderfully cast as Genie Klein, Carol's devoted mother, and James Clow shines as Don Kirshner, providing a period-appropriate visage for record executives of the times.

BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL Captivates NashvilleDirector Marc Bruni's ensemble seamlessly move in and out of the musical's multiple scenes with ease, becoming a multitude of individuals (Neil Sedaka, gleefully played by Jacob Heimer) and musical groups (The Drifters and The Shirelles figure prominently in the show just as they did in the rise of King and Goffin's careers) in the process.

Josh Prince's choreography provides the show with much of its energy, of course, but more importantly it captures the flavor of the 1960s with a contemporary flair that makes the show seem somehow more joyful.

Bruni's deft directorial hand also ensures that the show moves at an electrifying pace, so that by curtain you are likely to think "it's over already?" - a testament to his skillful storytelling. Derek McLaine's scenic design is beautifully realized, illuminated by Peter Kaczorowski's eye-popping lighting design and Brian Ronan's sound design was as good as it gets. Charles G. LaPointe's wigs are exquisitely crafted reproductions of the period, while Alejo Vietti's stunning costumes are ingeniously constructed and answers the age-old question of "what's the difference between skinny jeans and tight jeans?" The answer, my friend, is that the latter are far sexier! Take my word for it - or buy a ticket to Beautiful while it's still in Music City to see for yourself!

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Book by Douglas McGrath. Words and music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Music by arrangement with Song/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Marc Bruni. Choreography by Josh Prince. Music direction by Susan Draus. Music coordination by John Miller. Presented by HCA/Tristar Health Broadway at TPAC. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through May 28. Call (615) 782-4040 for reservations or go online at Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission.)

photos by Joan Marcus

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