Broadway finally came to town this week with the arrival of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The production is a jukebox musical in the vein of Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia. But unlike that schlock, essentially wafer-thin plots compiled as excuse for producers to pack houses with people who love to hear the hits, this production makes sense—cuz Carole King pretty much wrote every hit song ever (not really, but close). Her prolific career gives Beautiful’s producers an excuse to lavishly stage some of the most well-known songs of three decades but, you know, with context.
Most people know King as the beloved ’70s singer-songwriter—she’s is up there with Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Jackson Browne in the first presidency of late ’60s and ’all-of-the 70s balladeers. Her album Tapestry was most definitely playing in the background around my house while my mom smoked cigarettes, made macrame plant hangers and simmered fondue.
Before she was that Carole King, however, she was the composer Carole King (Julia Knitel), who along with her ex-husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), wrote dozens of hits in the ’50s and ’60s. They, and their colleagues and friends Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson), worked for Don Kirschner (Curt Bouril) who ran a songwriting sweatshop built to churn out chart-toppers that would make the careers from everyone to Neil Sedaka to the Drifters; the Shirelles to the Righteous Brothers.
But then the sixties sixties hit and shit got weird, man. Interpersonal strife ensues as the songwriting squares struggle to stay relevant.
So, as you can see, there are plenty of chances to literally play the hits. And telling from reaction of the couples on either side of me—who were were rocking, toe tapping and singing along to nearly every track—this is obviously what puts butts in seats.
Watching it in our new schmancy-fancy theater, I was struck at how much bigger and grander a Broadway production can be. This is pro-grade stuff. The set moves like a Swiss watch and the ensemble rolls in to do a Drifters bit, flips the scene into “The Locomotion” and suddenly the bloody Righteous Brothers are losing that loving feeling. Meanwhile, the principal performers in the roles of Carole and Gerry, Barry and Cynthia can sing and act up a storm.
Especially(!) Julie Knitel as Carole King. She. Can. Get. IT. Her voice seems to have no limits. Her portrayal of the evolution of dreamy schoolgirl Carol Klein to Carole King, national treasure, is believable, honest and an antidote to the play’s other syrupy aspects. I mean—when she sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” I truly felt like a natural woman.
Yes it’s schmaltz, but King’s personal tale is truly interesting. (Plus the side plot about Barry and Cynthia gives comic relief.) It’s the tale that explains, with jazz hands, how a nerdy girl from Brooklyn got to Carnegie Hall. Spoiler: Lots of tragedy and turmoil. What? you thought it was lots of practice?
Tickets are still available for the run which closes this weekend. It’s a great chance to revel in the songs of whichever era of Carole King wrote the soundtrack to your childhood and, as a bonus, you get to see what the Eccles Theater can do when they turn up the showmanship to 11.
Jeremy Pugh is a regular Salt Lake magazine contributor who writes about theater, history, culture, the outdoors and whatever else we ask him to. He’s also the author of 100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die, which is a book about, well, duh.