Theatre Review: ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ at RBTL’s Auditorium Theatre

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical! I am often put off by musicals that are just a framework into which song after song are stuffed—whether good, bad, logical, benign or poignant. I know I should be able to suspend my disbelief and go along with people breaking into song as they cook dinner, but I’m drawn in by good dialogue as much as good, well-placed musical numbers and I think the best musicals come from the combination of the two. “Beautiful” has that combination with the additional perks of satisfying character development, well-timed humor, acting that resonates, singing that knocks your socks off, spot-on costuming, wigs and makeup, and sets designed to put you in the mood of the era.

If musicals aren’t for you—this is your musical!

“Beautiful” chronicles the early years of Carole King’s songwriting career. Initially, she didn’t see herself as a lyricist and partnered with—and soon married—lyricist Gerry Goffin (played by Dylan S. Wallach). She and Gerry wrote dozens of memorable hits sung by the top artists of their time. Songs such as their first hit song, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (The Drifters), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), and “One Fine Day” (The Shirelles). The lead, Sarah Bockel, virtually channels Carole King with her flinty tones and slight tremolo. Early on in the production, she is a young, unpolished singer. Carole King’s style never became “polished” but it mellowed and grew simultaneously. In Bockel’s portrayal of the later years of Carole’s career—when she is performing her own numbers for audiences—you still see the simplicity of her style but it is with power she evokes your emotions.

It’s refreshing to be told a story about an extraordinarily talented person who is driven, from an early age, to do or be something NOT because they were desperate for a way out of a dismal situation but because they were brilliant at it and loved doing it. Carole King was an exceptional child, starting college at the age of 16. She probably could have been successful in any endeavor she pursued—even as a woman in the 50’s. She loved writing music and she was driven to be in the music business. Her simple, hard-working, and focused demeanor was far from flashy. You could even describe her as matronly amid the sequined dresses and lacquered hairdos of the musical acts her songs helped launch. The audience is rooting for Carole and Gerry’s partnership and marriage even when things get rocky. They are likable, albeit flawed, people. You also get to know and like their song-writing rivals—the team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Helmer). This rivalry turns into a life-long friendship that you are glad Carole has during the hard times.

The director, Marc Bruni, handles the scenes with care (without the kitsch). He brings out the innocence of the 50’s, the coming of age of the 60’s, and the mellowing of the 70’s. There are delightfully funny moments in many scenes, often delivered by a hypochondriacal Barry or Carole’s stalwart mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner). But it’s the songs that make you feel so good. If you were born before 1980 you probably can sing along to most of the songs King & Goffin, and Mann & Weil created. Songs like “It’s Too Late”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Up On The Roof”, “A Natural Woman”, “Take Good Care Of My Baby”, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, and “Beautiful”. The vignettes showcasing the singing groups of the era got my foot tapping and I had to control the urge to get up and dance. Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? This show does!

Running Time: 2 Hours 30 minutes with one 15-minute intermission,

“Beautiful, The Carole King Musical” runs until January 27 at the Rochester Broadway Theatre League’s Auditorium Theatre in Rochester NY. For more information, click here.