REVIEW: BEAUTIFUL the Musical at the Denver Center

by Mona Lott

If you’re already a Carole King fan (and really who isn’t?), you’re going to love Beautiful. If you’re not a fan, you’re going to fall in love with Carole King and the musical about her life.

Beautiful is called a juke box musical, but that label doesn’t hardly give justice to the beauty of this show. Lead by powerhouse Sarah Bockel as King, Beautiful picks up with King as a 16-year-old songwriter and sweeps us away on a journey depicting King’s personal and professional rise to becoming a star.

The real Carole King, still alive and well, had to be persuaded over time to let the musical be made. She didn’t think her life story was interesting enough to spawn a Broadway show. At the first reading of the show, Carole ran out of the building. Outside she was crying and overwhelmed with the emotional reaction she was having to the play. It seems her relationship with Gerry Goffin and struggles to make it work were just too much to look back on and relive. King isn’t the only one to feel overwhelmed though as the theater was filled with sniffles during an incredibly sentimental and touching moment when King tells her friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, good-bye by singing “You’ve got a friend” for them.

Everything works in this show. The costumes are spectacular, not only in their beauty but in their relationship to the time periods and the growth of the character. Some of them even illicit audible gasps with magical costume changes done in full view. Even the wigs play a huge part in making this show work and in conveying the trajectory of King’s life and her final appearance in that iconic style she wears so well of wild flowing locks of curls. The set is not only ingenuously functional but very eye pleasing as well, especially when it serves as a back drop for some of those iconic groups that sang King’s songs back in the sixties.

The music is no surprise here, using many of King’s creations and even some great numbers written by Mann and Weil.  Most are recognizable and well loved, some draw surprise causing the exclamation, “I didn’t know she wrote that one too.” Those songs though, require performances that rival the real-life originals.  In all honesty, this cast is right on in recreating The Drifters, The Shirells, The Rightous Brothers, Neil Sedaka and even a spot-on characterization of King herself.

The ensemble is so good here that It’s hard to even think of them as chorus members. They shine like stars covering these great groups with gorgeous harmonies and dance the joyously fun choreography with panache.

Jacob Heimer and Alison Whitehurst are superstars as Mann and Weil supporting the leads with comic relief reminiscent of Ethel and Fred on I Love Lucy. The chemistry with these two just works and their performances are well rounded and honest. Suzanne Grodner is a real scene stealer as Kings mother, Genie Klein, delivering some of the funniest lines in the show. James Clow as music publisher, Don Kirshner has real stage presence and manages to deliver the humor without sacrificing the somewhat stoic demeaner of his character.

As mentioned earlier though, this musical hinges on Bockel, portraying King from an adolescent 16 to an adult woman with two kids a failed marriage and a solo show at Carnegie Hall. So good is her characterization, it seems she is possessed by Carole King and is simply channeling the real thing. Her transition from child to young woman to midlife is so believable that I thought there were three different actresses playing the role. She absolutely sparkles recreating the exuberance of King with that recognizable smile, but she also will break hearts in playing the vulnerability of the role. Her vocals are so powerful, so pleasant, so, well… beautiful. She literally stops the show at two points when the audience just can’t help but cheer for her as she finds herself and becomes more than a young girl that writes songs.

If there can be any criticism found in this show, it’s the simple truth that it ends with King at Carnegie Hall performing her Tapestry album. It just makes one yearn for a third act and maybe a fourth. A desire to watch the rest of King’s life is staggering, but Broadway shows don’t have a third act and this show is smart in leaving one desperately wanting more!

Beautiful has a very limited run here in Denver, so RUN, don’t walk to see it. It’s one of the most perfect productions I’ve seen in a long time and will be long remembered.

For tickets or more information, contact the Denver Center Box Ofice by calling 303-893-4100 or online at www.denvercenter.org.

 

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