The beginning of Beautiful, which opened in Los Angeles at the Pantages Theater this week, isn’t a full-blown orchestral overture to introduce the story of legendary singer-songwriter Carole King as one might expect from a Broadway musical. Instead, it starts with a lone baby grand on the stage and Sarah Bockel, who plays the titular music icon, walking out on stage as if this is her memorable 1971 concert at Carnegie Hall. She sits at the piano and starts performing “So Far Away”, swaddling the audience with the emotional song about two distant lovers, setting the tone for this jukebox musical that doesn’t feel anything like a jukebox musical.
As Bockel sings the words from “So Far Away”, she embodies quintessential 1971 King with her gorgeous mane of hair and a pre-disco era maxi dress that flows with Earth mother realness. With a tinge of a Brooklyn accent, she talks to the audience, not with a forced wink and a nod cheesiness, but with a triumphant, yet casual smile that says “this is my story and I’m happy to finally tell it to you…with some of my most iconic songs.”
The intro leads into the humble beginnings of Carole Klein, an aspiring singer-songwriter living in the Brooklyn. As we travel back into time, her hair goes from flowy and glorious to pulled back with bangs like a teenybopper in the late ’50s (she goes on quite a hair journey through the musical). With a book by Douglas McGrath, the narrative moves at a rapid pace without seeming rushed. In fact, considering her expansive career, the bullet-point, Wikipedia approach to her life and career is not only welcomed but done well and with respect to the artist.
Using the songwriter nom de plume of Carole King — a name that would launch her into the stratosphere of fame — she sells a song to legendary music producer Don Kirshner (James Clow) and then meets Gerry Goffin (played with sensitive rebel charm by Dylan S. Wallach). As the Carole King story goes, the two eventually become a sought-after songwriting duo and eventually a husband and wife. They churn out songs such as “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Take Good Care Of My Baby” for music acts including the Drifters and “Take Care of My Baby”. They also wrote the classic Shirelles song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” which serves as an emotional Jenga block to the musical, foreshadowing the fate of the relationship between Carole and Gerry.
Along the way, they meet Carole and Gerry meet two other legendary songwriters working for Kirshner: Cynthia Weil (a sprite and stylish songstress Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (played with deadpan delight by Jacob Heimer). As musical history has shown us, Cynthia and Barry, like Carole and Gerry, become a successful songwriting duo, bringing classic hits such as “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”. The two couples enter this friendly rivalry as they vie to have the most number one hits on the Billboard charts.
The war of number ones cleverly opens the musical to a montage of well-staged and high-energy performances of classic hits that have remained pillars in the history of music. And just when you think that Beautiful is just a celebration of music and King’s music, we find out her husband is cheating on her — and very open about it which makes it worse. Thus begins a new journey for King which would fuel her career that would blaze the trail for women.
Unlike other jukebox musicals, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical isn’t a production of popular songs shoehorned into a thin, forgettable narrative. Beautiful is mindfully crafted with a story you actually care about because the people who wrote the music are telling the story. The meta-ness of Beautiful is what gives the musical a soul and stand out among its lesser jukebox kin. Even calling it a jukebox musical would be unfair. A musical biopic would be more accurate.
The second act is essentially the breaking down of a woman who stands by a man she loves who is emotionally unstable and unfaithful but later learns that it is more important to stand for and love herself — and that talent tends to eclipse looks. By emptying the trash out of her life and fully leaning into her talent, she becomes the singer-songwriter queen she was destined to become.
The musical is filled with bops and jams from the expansive King-Goffin-Weil-Mann catalog that move the story forward with emotion, action, and purpose, weaving a fine tapestry of a woman’s journey to stardom — culminating with her performance at Carnegie Hall. The bookend to the show gives us a full circle of King’s life which is punctuated with two of her most celebrated songs: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, a song which the late, great Aretha Franklin is often associated with, and, of course, “Beautiful”.
Yes, Beautiful is glossy and gives us a Cliffs Notes version of one of our greatest living music icons, but it’s done efficiently with grace and thought. With its sepia-tinged glow that echoes the warmth of the titular artist, Beautiful is a reminder of why we should celebrate our legends while they are still here.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical takes the stage at Hollywood’s Pantages Theater through Sept. 30.