The Kennedy Center production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical offers what Broadway seekers crave: snazzy stagecraft and sleek production numbers, such as “1650 Broadway Medley,” a composite recording session featuring immortal pop groups performing their biggest hits. All arrayed in an eye catching two-story set of illuminated metal flashing jewel-toned headlights, evoking the maze of instruments and recording equipment of a literal music factory. The backdrop is a glitzy contrast to Carole King’s humble origin story from innocent Brooklyn school-girl brimming with ideas, to mature divorced mother needing to assert her own voice. Yet from Broadway pop factory to solo concert at Carnegie Hall, King never deviates from her self-proclaimed “so normal,” “so square” self.
In some ways formulaic – ingénue girl from humble origins enters competitive adult universe, girl has spunk, girl faces adversity, girl overcomes, girl triumphs – the friendly bio-musical nonetheless engages an audience familiar with the outcome. Abby Mueller shines and convinces as the painfully, but accurately, frumpy King. If you liked The Jersey Boys or Motown, you’ll love Beautiful. Opening in the frolicking 1950s, the production offers a fat list of evergreens written by the prolific King and her young husband, Gerry Goffin (played by Liam Tobin), including “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” and “One Fine Day.” The soundtrack weaves a jukebox tessellation of greatest-hits that have you tapping your toes, exclaiming, “I didn’t know she wrote that!”
Based on Douglas McGrath’s book, the story depicts the early pop industry in New York, and its toll on those feeding it. King and Goffin, along with friends and competitive songwriting team of Cynthia Weil (played by Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (played by Ben Frankhauser), ride the roller coaster of fifties demand for sugary, doo-wop chart-toppers, followed by the sixties hunger for something more raw.
The show culminates with King’s triumph as she emerges from the shadows of musical writing into triumph as an artist on her own right with the era-defining, best-selling album “Tapestry,” winning a bazillion Grammys and appearing at Carnegie Hall.
The central conflict in Beautiful is King’s quest for a fulfilling family life, and the impossibility of it with the personally and professionally restless Goffin. Songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “It’s Too Late,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” skillfully mark key points in the relationship or its wake. Over two hours, the musical recaptures three decades of music, and King knits together the soundtrack of a generation. What elevates Beautiful from a Billboard count down style musical is the human portrait of how a familiar song came to be, and the real, complex person within the reluctant star.
Beautiful took home two 2014 Tony Awards as well as a 2015 Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album, and features a book by Tony and Academy Award–nominated writer Douglas McGrath, direction by Marc Bruni, and choreography by Josh Prince. Catch Beautiful from October 6, 2015 through October 25, 2015 at the Kennedy Center (2700 F Street, NW Washington, DC 20566). Buy tickets at www.kennedy-center.org or by phone at (202) 467-4600.
*All images courtesy Kennedy Center