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REVIEW: A BeautifulTrip to Days of Songwriting Past (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the national touring company of Beautiful do the Locomotion. Photo by Joan Marcus.

There was a time when singers just sang and performed, leaving the songwriting to others. Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and Elvis Presley did not write most of their own songs. For them, and for generations before, the songs were written by others, many of whom toiled in anonymity in small offices in Tin Pan Alley. In the 1950s and 1960s, the best-known songwriting addresses were the Brill Building and 1650 Broadway; the latter is the primary venue for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

Beautiful opened last night at the Orpheum Theatre, as part of the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Broadway on Hennepin Series. The show first opened on Broadway in 2014, and is still running there. It won two Tony Awards in 2014, the cast album won a Grammy in 2015, and the national tour swept to Minneapolis that same year. Now it’s playing in town through Sunday.

Everything changed for songwriting with the coming of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.  After those artists exploded onto the scene, the singers writing their own songs became considered part of the music’s authenticity.  Beautiful is about the time just before, when someone like Carole King (Sarah Bockel) could grow up dreaming of becoming a songwriter and nothing more, and be surprised when she ultimately ended up performing her own creations.

The Shirelles (played by DeAnne Stewart, McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Alexis Tidwell, and Marla Louissaint), one of many bands that appear to showcase the hit songs of the rock-pop era. Photo by Joan Marcus.

King’s success as a performer and songwriter is indisputable. As a songwriter, she has had more than 400 of her songs recorded by approximately 1,000 artists. For her songwriting, she has been inducted (either alone or with Gerry Goffin) into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. King also received The Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. As a singer, her 1971 album Tapestry was one of the best-selling and most-influential works of the pop-rock era.

The show Beautiful centers on a dozen or so key years in King’s life. King (born “Carol Klein,” she changed her name when she started submitting her songs to producers) was seemingly in the middle of the music business from her high school days.  She had dated Neil Sedaka (John Michael Dias), who then wrote a hit song about her (“Oh Carol”); and she made a demo record with Paul Simon. At 16, King presented songs she had written to Don Kirshner (James Clow), the music publisher, producer, and manager who ran 1650 Broadway. He told her that she needed a better lyricist. Not to be deterred, King found Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach), a good-looking young man she has a crush on, who also happened to write plays. They worked well together as songwriters, became lovers, and – when King got pregnant – they decided to marry.

The show also gives a look at King and Goffin’s neighbors at 1650 Broadway: the songwriting pair Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) and Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst). Mann was a hypochondriac tune-writer and Weil was a wise-cracking lyricist who loved Mann but feared that marriage would derail her career.  King/Goffin and Mann/Weil were friendly rivals, seemingly taking turns dominating the pop chart. As the story went (and unfolds onstage), King and Goffin married early, but their marriage imploded due to Goffin’s infidelities. Mann and Weil took a long time before they even moved in together, and longer still to marry.  After King finally rid herself of Goffin, she found the willingness to perform and record her own songs, and to move to Los Angeles with the two daughters she had had with Goffin. The beginning and end of Beautiful has King, a few years later, performing the hits from Tapestry at Carnegie Hall.

In some ways, the plot is almost beside the point. Beautiful is part of a growing genre of shows that uses the story of musicians’ lives and struggles as a plot structure to support a nostalgic concert of popular songs.  For example, Jersey Boys centers on the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; Million Dollar Quartet offers the varied tunes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. Beautiful provides a comparable buffet of pop hits.

Sarah Bockel as Carole King in the latter’s famous Carnegie Hall concert. Photo by Joan Marcus.

For viewers around my age or a little older (which seemed to be most of the packed audience at the Orpheum last night), it was like a wonderful oldies radio station, punctuated by well-written banter and a bit of drama and tears.  King’s first visit to 1650 Broadway offers an opportunity to display samples from earlier songs originating from that address: the “1650 Broadway Medley” includes quirky hits like “Splish Splash”, “Love Potion No. 9”, and “Yakety Yak”.  Bringing Mann/Weil into the story allows us to hear “On Broadway”, “He’s Sure the Boy I Love”, “Walking in the Rain”, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”, and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”.  (We also hear “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp),” which Mann wrote alone, reminding us why he definitely needed a good lyricist.)

And, of course, King and Goffin (combined with King on her own) allow the show to include “It Might as Well Rain Until September”, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, “Up on the Roof”, “The Locomotion”, “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “It’s Too Late”, “So Far Away”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, and “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman”. After the show ends, we even get an encore of Brockel/King encouraging the audience to join her in “I Feel the Earth Move”.

A scene at the famous songwriting factory at 1650 Broadway: Don Kirshner (James Clow), Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach), Carole King (Sarah Bockel), Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer), and Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) around the piano. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sometimes the show’s songs are sung by the songwriting characters, sometimes by performers pretending to be the stars of that day. On the whole, those singing as the Drifters (Dimitri Joseph Moïse, Deon Releford-Lee, Nathan Andrew Riley, and Michael Tiggers, Jr.), The Shirelles (McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Marla Louissaint, DeAnne Stewart, and Alexis Tidwell), Little Eva (Alexis Tidwell), Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst), and Janelle Woods (McKynleigh Alden Abraham) do good (if far from perfect) imitations of the originals. John Michael Dias and Paul Scanlan have the thankless task of trying to recreate the unique sound of The Righteous Brothers, which does not come off quite as well. As for the lead, Brockel’s voice is actually stronger than Carole King’s. However, what is not fully captured is the distinctive yearning and vulnerability in King’s voice, which fits so well with the melancholy in many of her tunes.

Douglas McGrath, who wrote Beautiful, weaves the King/Goffin songs into the plot. “Up on the Roof” reflects Goffin’s need to escape what he perceives to be constraint or conflict, while “One Fine Day” becomes King’s reaction to Goffin’s cheating. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is Goffin’s chafing against the conventionality of the suburbs, and “You’ve Got a Friend” is King’s promise to Kirshner, Mann, and Weil that she will be there for them – even when she abandons 1650 Broadway for the West Coast.

Brockel (as King) displays, in a nicely understated way, the latter’s mixture of awkwardness, insecurity, ambition, and determination. Dylan S. Wallach does well to bring across Goffin’s inner restlessness, his need not to be tied down.  Alison Whitehurst as Weil, Jacob Heimer as Mann, and James Clow as Kirshner give us nicely three-dimensional characters, even if the script does not allow us to see very deeply into their personalities. Finally, one should mention Suzanne Grodner, who has a small but crucial role as Genie Klein, King’s mother, who we see discouraging King’s dreams at the beginning, but supporting her through hard times later.

The sets by Derek McLane are effectively spare, with just the right touch of Art Deco and Sixties style, where appropriate.  The Costumes by Alejo Vietti subtly but effectively show the transition from 1950s pop through 1960s counter-culture to the early 1970s.

The audience is genuinely happy for King when she finds a way to leave her husband, and make a life and a performing career for herself.  They respond to her declarations of independence and her slow steps to overcome a basic shyness to begin to perform in front of audiences.  However, mostly the audience loved the songs.  Everywhere one looked one could see people happily mouthing the words to old favorite songs, and tapping their feet to the music.  It is a great evening of entertainment!

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN through October 27, 2018.


Brian Bix