Carole King’s music was the soundtrack of my youth. Like many in the Kennedy Center audience, I could easily have sung along with every song. But nostalgia aside, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical delivers nearly three hours of great music delivered by dynamite voices and, as Dick Clark used to say on American Bandstand: “It has a great beat and you can dance to it.”
Carole King née Klein was a Brooklyn teenager when she started writing songs. She hooked up with a fellow Queens College student, Gerry Goffin–she composed the music, he wrote the words. They collaborated so effectively that King was pregnant and married before her seventeenth birthday. King and Goffin produced a string of hits, spurred on by their competition with another song-writing duo Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who worked in the same building and for the same recording artists. Unfortunately for King, the marriage did not last as long as the music. The painful breakup inspired her emergence as performer.
Beautiful is really a review of King’s music. In most cases, the audience hears the collaborators trying out a few bars then the singers who made them famous appear on stage in period costume to perform them. The flimsy chronological plot, tracing King’s career from songwriter to singer, is simply a device to string the songs together.
The singing, however, is fantastic. Abby Mueller embodies Carole King with a lyric gusto. Her Brooklyn accent, like good pastrami, should have been sliced a little thinner. But her voice is amazing. Liam Tobin (Gerry Goffin), Becky Gulsvig (Cynthia Weil), and Ben Fankhauser (Barry Mann) are also vocal virtuosi. It doesn’t hurt that King/Goffin and Weil/Mann provided great material.
The sixties were the era of great girl groups and doo-wop harmonies. Beautiful brings them back in all of their syncronized splendor, as actors playing the Shirelles and the Drifters glimmer with spangles and dance their way through “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Up on the Roof,” and “On Broadway.”
Those numbers alone are worth the price of admission.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs through October 25 at the Kennedy Center. $39 to $185.