Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Jan. 28
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“Beautiful—The Carole King Musical” is just as enjoyable the second time around. The touring show, which first appeared in Chicago is late 2015 with local actress Abby Mueller in the title role for which her sister, Jesse, won at Tony Award on Broadway, is back with another Chicagoan as the remarkable composer and singer-songwriter: Sarah Bockel. A veteran of The Hypocrites, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Paramount Theatre, and other companies, she does a convincing job not only of channeling King’s singing and performance style but also of charting her rise from talented and determined teenager to mature artist and the emotional roller-coaster that went with it.
Though King has achieved much in the 45-plus years since, Douglas McGrath’s book for “Beautiful” begins and ends with her triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall in the wake of her multi-award-winning 1971 album “Tapestry.” The flashbacks in between start in the late 1950s with her as a smart, fairly normal 16 year old living in Brooklyn with her mother, Genie (Suzanne Grodner, spot-on as a Jewish mother). She studies classical music in high school (and changes her name from Carol Joan Klein) but really wants to be a songwriter—and earn enough to have a house in the suburbs and a family. With a pile of songs, she has the chutzpah to go to Don Kirshner’s (James Clow) famous song factory at 1650 Broadway. He likes her music but suggests she team up with a lyricist.
Once King meets aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer) in college and they fall in love, he becomes her word man, and the dream team that wrote “Oh Carol,” “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and countless others is born.
Much of “Beautiful” focuses on the creation of these songs and the famous artists—Neil Sedaka, The Shirelles, The Drifters, Little Eva—who recorded them for Kirshner, as well as the rise and fall of King and Goffin’s relationship. They get married when she’s 17 and pregnant with their first child, struggle financially until the Shirelles have a hit with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and eventually do get that house in the ‘burbs. But Goffin’s recurring bouts of depression, restlessness, and philandering are their undoing.
The musical also follows the friendly competition between King and Goffin and another song factory team, hypochondriac composer Barrry Mann (an exceedingly droll Jacob Heimer) and willowy blond lyricist Cynthia Weil (Sarah Goeke). They also wrote a string of hits including “Who Put the Bomp,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and “Walking in the Rain.” Positioned as a counterpoint to the main couple—in that they waited a long time to get married until they were sure of their professional partnership—they also provide much of the comic relief, though the whole script is peppered with funny gag lines.
Another theme is the changes taking place in the music industry. For Goffin, these are a source of the anxiety and frustration that contribute to his breakdown. But for King, the ability and impetus to change with the times and strike out on her own results in greater success. It also dovetails with the message of female empowerment at the heart of “Beautiful,” which is really about how King found the strength to go on after the divorce and become a solo performer. It’s no accident that her decision to leave Goffin tends to get a round of applause.
If you’re a fan of 1960s rock ‘n’ roll, you may find some of the imitations of the early groups more accurate than others, and at times Josh Prince’s choreography for them almost comes across as parody. What is illuminating, however, is the differences between how the songs sound when sung by their creators and by the groups who recorded them.
Directed by Marc Bruni, this “Beautiful—The Carole King Musical” isn’t always as tight as it could be, and some of the supporting actors don’t make much of a mark, but with Bockel in the lead and all the wonderful music, it’s certainly worth seeing. My favorite King song in the show: “You’ve Got a Friend,” written after she left Goffin and probably made most famous by her friend James Taylor who, alas, doesn’t appear here—just one more reason for a sequel.