Regional Reviews: Phoenix
When most people hear the name Carole King they immediately think of her hugely successful 1971 album "Tapestry" which stayed on the Billboard chart for six years, sold millions of copies, and won four Grammy awards. But before she achieved that success, King and her partner Gerry Goffin wrote dozens of hugely popular pop songs for other artists. They also were married, though the marriage was problematic. While Beautiful: The Carole King Musical focuses on the rise to fame of King as a singer-songwriter, it also follows the ups and downs in her relationship with Goffin as well as the competitive friendship they had with fellow songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann and the vast number of hit songs this quartet wrote. The stellar touring production of the smash Broadway show, in Tempe for a week long run, is led by a sensational Julia Knitel as King.
Bookwriter Douglas McGrath crafted an engaging script which is framed by King's 1971 Carnegie Hall concert in support of "Tapestry," where we see her perform her hit song "So Far Away." We then go back in time to 1958 Brooklyn where a 16-year-old Carol Klein is a budding songwriter about to head into the music publishing world located in New York City's Times Square to hopefully sell her first song. It's a wise choice to start with the "Tapestry" song since, as I mentioned above, most people recognize King's long curly hair and singing voice from that album and the sight of a ponytailed teeny bopper with a slightly different name would be a confusing way to start.
Klein used Carole King as her songwriting name and, after a chance meeting with writer Gerry Goffin at the college they both attended and interest from music publisher Donnie Kirshner, the duo began their decade long journey of writing dozens of hit songs. Their union produced two daughters but also heartache for Carole, due to Gerry's philandering, drug use, and mental illness. Perhaps focusing only on their marital woes amongst their successes might not have produced a fully entrancing show, so the decision to include their friendship and professional rivalry with Weil and Mann was a smart choice, as it provides not only a view into their competitive nature with this couple but also the inclusion of another songwriting duo's backstory and their hit songs.
And boy are there plenty of hit songs in this show. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Up on the Roof," "Take Good Care of My Baby" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" are just a few in this hit parade of familiar tunes, in addition to the many songs we hear from "Tapestry."
The cast for this national tour are excellent. Julia Knitel understudied the role of King on Broadway and she is exceptional in portraying not only the various ages of King, but also the wide range of emotions she feels. Her singing voice is warm and similar enough to evoke King's signature style without being a complete impersonation. She also provides a deep and moving moment in the second act when King discovers that her voice and not others' is the perfect way to get across the meaning and emotional resonance of her own lyrics. As Gerry Goffin, Liam Tobin has to play both the man that King falls in love with as well as the person who treats her badly. Tobin manages to navigate his way through these requirements with ease in this well shaded portrayal of a man who has many demons in his life.
Erika Olson and Ben Frankhauser form a dynamic couple as Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, with Olson's spunky portrayal and direct, no nonsense delivery of her lines in nice counterpoint to Frankhauser's excellent comical approach to the neurotic Mann. Curt Bouril is perfectly matter of fact as the all-business Donnie Kirshner, and Suzanne Grodner's expert dry delivery adds plenty of zing to her witty comments as Carole's mother. McGrath's script includes many laugh out moments which the entire cast deliver exceptionally. The hardworking ensemble play a wide range of parts with skill and style.
The Broadway creative team carries over their excellent designs and contributions for this tour. Director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince provide seamless and fluid transitions between the many scenes and locations of the show. Bruni's direction ensures that not only are the musical numbers expertly delivered but also that the many dramatic and humorous moments between the two couples are treated with a natural and realistic respect. Prince's choreography delivers some knockout period steps for the numerous well known groups and singers represented in this musical.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a feel good show with a firm emotional center that offers a wide range of familiar songs framed by the moving story of a woman finding her voice and place in life.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays through November 27th, 2016, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.BeautifulOnBroadway.com.
Book: Douglas McGrath
Carole King: Julia Knitel