BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL Continues to Delight and Entertain, But Can We Just Get Past the Jukebox Musical, Please?
In the realm of jukebox bio-musicals, BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL is probably better than most. And a lot of that has to do with King's rich repertoire of music, not to mention the fact that her story runs parallel to the story of the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Their collective mark on pop music is undeniable.
King began her songwriting career at the age of 16 in the hallowed halls of an office building located at 1650 Broadway, a music warehouse of sorts located just blocks away from the infamous Brill Building. In 2013, Weil told The New Yorker that the rents were cheaper at 1650 Broadway than in the Brill Building and newer publishers, like Aldon Music, had their offices there. Weil describes the Aldon Music office as having four cubicles wherein she and her writing/life partner Mann, along with King and her writing partner and husband at the time Jerry Goffin, all worked. The foursome became friends and even vacationed together. But in 1968, King moved from New York to Los Angeles, divorced Goffin, and began her solo career. Her solo album Tapestry sold over 25-million copies worldwide, won four Grammy Awards, and has been hailed as one of top albums of all time. Shortly after Tapestry was released in 1971, King played Carnegie Hall, which is where the musical BEAUTIFUL begins and ends.
Sarah Bockel, who is coming off her limited engagement playing Carole King on Broadway, plays the title role in the touring production, which plays the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) this week. Bockel does a fine job portraying King as a 'normal person' with a dream of writing songs, getting married, and moving to the suburbs. Some of Bockel's vocals are spot-on, like the title song Beautiful and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, while during other songs her vibrato sneaks into the performance. Still, she does a good job engaging the audience to the point that it scores almost a visceral response.
Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry Goffin also delivers some beautiful vocals. And Alison Whitehurst's energetic portrayal of Cynthia Weil, alongside Jacob Heimer's droll portrayal of Barry Mann, is truly some kind of wonderful.
Fortunately, this national tour has not been scaled down like the national tour of JERSEY BOYS was, to its detriment, when it played the Duke Energy Center earlier this year. This one still has the feel of a big, Broadway show. However, much like many other jukebox musicals, some of the well-known songs have been given the once-over Broadway treatment unnecessarily. For example, On Broadway, which was written by Weil and Mann, loses its gritty, bluesy feel here. Similarly, The Locomotion, written by King and Goffen, falls victim to a Broadway makeover and campy staging. The good news for the audience, however, is that the rest of King's songs remain relatively intact. And perhaps taken in the context of the show, some of the music and lyrics might even become more meaningful for some fans.
Let's be honest. Like most jukebox musicals, BEAUTIFUL is less about the theatricality of the piece and all about the music. And for fans of King's music standing on their feet and feeling the earth move at the end of the show at DPAC opening night, BEAUTIFUL did not disappoint. For me, however, I find it easier to rally behind a show wherein a singer/songwriter pens new work for the Broadway stage more so than a show that has been fabricated around an existing songbook. But judging by the commercial success of BEAUTIFUL on Broadway and worldwide, I'm in the minority.
BEAUTIFUL runs through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For more information visit: https://lottery.broadwaydirect.com/show/beautiful-durham/.