‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ at the Academy of Music

A legend set to music

Beautiful is a feel-good musical reminiscent of the exuberant 1930s “Let’s put on a show!” musicals starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Beautiful, which traces the careers of Carole King and her songwriting pals in the 1960s, has that same kind of schmaltzy innocence that made America feel good in hard times.

At work in the Brill Building. (Original Broadway cast; photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of the Kimmel Center)

Carole King herself (played in full-voice by Abby Mueller) is the draw for the show, but the first act examines her marriage and creative partnership with Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin). Their relationship is played in counterpoint to that of fellow songwriters Barry Mann and his partner Cynthia Weil, whose work (“On Broadway,” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”) is also prominently featured. Ben Fankhauser does a delightful job playing Mann as a romantic hypochondriac and Becky Gulsvig plays Weil as an ambitious fashion plate with a brassy voice.

Beautiful follows King’s early career and marriage to Goffin until their relationship hits the skids because of his mental breakdown. But that’s just a momentary glitch in a trajectory that leads to her becoming the mega-star singer-songwriter we think of today, and even Gerry comes back into her life to wish her well, and gee whiz, kids, we all stand up and sing.

Keeping reality out of the true story

Both King and Goffin went on to other marriages, more children, and many other songs, but why should reality intrude on creating a fun evening in the theater? Beautiful is set in an imagined time in the music business when drugs were invisible and people seemed to like and support each other. That Goffin’s breakdown may have been triggered by dropping acid is incidental to the story of a young ambitious girl triumphing despite all odds. In fact, she reassures us, she was so innocent she wouldn’t have known if he was using drugs at all.

The set, with its gliding panels, transforms easily from living room to office space, to recording studio, and even a suburban home and a cabin in the woods. The costumes were spot on for the period, and seeing Gulsvig in the haircuts and outfits I once wore was a treat. Now, if the Academy of Music could fix the sound system, which can’t quite seem to handle brassy voices, it would have been an almost flawless performance. 

The fun of the evening came from hearing old familiar songs and saying, “I didn’t know she wrote that.” Who knew that the same Carole King who wrote “You’ve Got a Friend” also wrote the music for “The Loco-Motion”? Most of the songs are familiar even to younger audiences, and the opening bars of each song were enough to set feet tapping.

This is one of the rare effective jukebox musicals, because the songs function as part of the story. Showcasing the work of Mann and Weil, as well as King and Goffin, places King’s work in the context of its time and makes the show that much richer. Ultimately it’s a show about moving on with your life no matter what happens. Or as the lyrics to the song “Beautiful” say: “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart . . . and you’re gonna find . . . that you’re beautiful as you feel.”

For Carol Rocamora’s review of the original Broadway production, click here.
 

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