REVIEW: ‘Beautiful’ Captures the Genius of Trailblazing Composer Carole King

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Julia Knitel is Carole King in “Beautiful the Musical.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

As a child of the 1970s, there was always Carole King and “Tapestry.”

“Beautiful,” the Tony-nominated musical now playing at the Peace Center, is based on her pre-“Tapestry” life from a precocious 16-year-old prodigy in 1958 to Carnegie Hall in 1971, when she cemented her status as the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century, and the first woman to win the Song of the Year Grammy Award.

King, beautifully embodied by Julia Knitel on this national tour, has often been quoted as saying she “never meant to be a singer,” but a songwriter in a man’s game.

And her divorced mother Genie (an affable and most-lovable Suzanne Grodner), a teacher and wannabe playwright, drives this idea home every day: “Girls don’t write music they teach it.”

King, who is generally associated with the liberal folksy, liberating music of the 1970s, is, in many ways a throwback to the 1940s: at age 18, she was already a homemaker with a child and married to her romantic and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (played by the handsome Liam Tobin).

The duo met at Queens College and cut her teeth as a staff lyricist/composer team at Aldon Music run by Don Kirshner known as “The Man With The Golden Ear” who had his pulse on the teen rock sound, and was King’s surrogate father figure. Here is played suavely by the towering Curt Bouril.

And it’s at Aldon that the couple wrote a succession of hit songs (and several number ones) made iconic by others and many executed  in this show in a successsion of capable name-dropping pefromances ‑ “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof” for The Drifters, “The Loco-Motion” for their babysitter Little Eva; “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” for The Shirelles, and many, many more standards.

In the first act, one is stricken with “I didn’t know she wrote that!” syndrome many times throughout, but the santicty of fanilairity lies musically and dramatically in the second act, which mines the soothing and material associated with Carole King the household namesake from California. We relish in the comforts of “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel The Earth Move” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” and of course, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” all done with aplpmb by Ms. Knitel, who  genuinely captures King’s subdued, humble and earthy presence, even stroking the keys in King’s style of percussive piano playing.

And the trademark of waves of blonde hair really transforms her by the play’s end when some choices in her life (divorce from Goffin over his affairs and recording her own material) and accompanying songs express a certain modern, resonating empowerment that Kintel serves with an “I Will Survive” attitude and was rewarded duly on opening night with cheers a couple of times during the play.

The book is by screenwriter Douglas McGrath (“Bullets over Broadway” and “Emma”) ” is as much revue as biography that shares the plot and set list with best friends and friendly rival songwriters at  Aldon ‑ Cynthia Weil, played by a feisty Erika Olson, and Barry Mann, played by a comical, self-effacing Ben Fankhauser, who is blessed with most of the more amusing moments in the show. Their many standards include The Drifters’ “On Broadway” and The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

While act one may be lacking dramatically, it does present a compelling portrait of the fascinating industry of music publishing centrally located both at (as the song points out)” 1650 Broadway”  and a block away at the Brill Building (1619 Broadway). The music world was approaching an epic shift both geographically from New York to Los Angeles and fundamentally as the “singer/songwriter” model emerged with acts like Bob Dylan and The Beatles. And King was part of that movement.

This setting is reproduced with scenic designer Derek McLane’s  textured panels and screens that echo the 1930s architecture of Broadway, with a studio production motif (recording machines, musical instruments, etc.) that evokes the music studies of Georges Braque.

The book also fudges some facts, particularly Goffin’s numerous affairs ‑ the fictional Janelle Woods is based on Earl-Jean McCrea Reavis (of the girl group The Cookies) with whom he had a child with in 1964.  Goffin suffered from mental illness and drug abuse, but continued a successful songwriting career until his death in 2014. He even co-wrote Whitney Houston’s “Saving All My Love for You” and continuing his collaboration with Ms. King for many years after their divorce.

While “Beautiful” isn’t the most intimate musical in regards to its subject, it does nonetheless leave one with boundless respect for the artist.

“Beautiful” is directed by Marc Bruni, with Susan Draus as music director, choreography by Josh Prince, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, and Tony-winning sound design by Brian Ronan.

“Beautiful” continues through Sunday, February 26 at the Peace Center, 300 South Main St. in Greenville. Call (864) 467-3000 or visit http://www.peacecenter.org

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