I feel the earth move under my feet…
I’ve felt that way for lo so many years when I listen to Carole King’s songs, which I thought were mostly limited to her solo album, Tapestry, released in 1971. But the Tony Award-winning musical inspired by her career, Beautiful, now playing at the Benedum Center and starring a dynamic Abby Muller, proves that there was much more to this pop icon.
This is a glossy rendering of her life from a smart, talented teenager who skipped two grades and left college to become a songwriter to the self-assured artist who produced Tapestry. Along the way she married Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), her first love, husband and lyricist. It gives the musical a dramatic edge, alluding to his affairs and drug use.
It also follows the influential New York music publishing house run by Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), along with another successful partnership there in the entertaining duo of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.
But this is jukebox musical, similar to The Jersey Boys. It produces a back story around the surprising number of hits as it educates the public about King’s importance. She was ahead of her time, able to be an understanding wife, a mother to two children and a successful, but in some ways humble artist who follows her dream.
While some of the facts might have been surprising to the public at large, so were the tunes. Who knew that she and Goffin wrote their first big hit, Some Kind of Wonderful, for The Drifters? And Will You Love Me Tomorrow took The Shirelles to the top of the pop charts, the first black female singing group to do so?
It didn’t end there, with The Locomotion (Little Eva) and One Fine Day (Janelle Woods) adding to their mix of hits. The chirping Weil (Gulsvig) and and hypochondriac Mann (Ben Fankhauser) were able to mount challenges like You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling (The Righteous Brothers) to give balance and comedy to the production.
And that was just the first act.
Kudos to the entire cast, 24 in all, that loomed larger with its versatility, similar in the that respect to another Tony-winning musical, Once. Not only did they execute great covers of so many familiar songs in the style of the time, but they danced and played a number of extra instruments. It’s all in the current trend of the quadruple-threat (and maybe more) performer.
The production saves some surprises for the end, including (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, the Aretha Franklin anthem that King and Goffen wrote for her. All along I felt the earth was moving and grooving, but there is a shortened version of “Earth” to add an exclamation point to it all.
This is a juicy musical chunk of rock and roll history, one to be savored. Some audience members will have lived and cherished it, others were probably just being introduced. But there is no doubt that Carole King’s legacy is both timeless and “beautiful.”