Critic's Pick: 'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical' at the Aronoff

Both King and this show that tells her story are beautiful.

click to enlarge Julia Knitel, seated at the piano, as Carole King - PHOTO: JOAN MARCUS
Photo: Joan Marcus
Julia Knitel, seated at the piano, as Carole King
Does 1958 strike you as “So Far Away”? That’s a trick question: As soon as you hear the familiar melody of that hit song by Carole King, time melts away. Watching the touring production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical onstage at the Aronoff, you’ll quickly discover that she was a precocious 16-year-old when she began writing Pop tunes. That’s right: Many of the great hits from the late ’50s and early ’60s were composed by a teenage Jewish girl from Brooklyn who went on to be an acclaimed singer-songwriter in the 1970s.

The show cleverly draws you into the life of this young woman who had great self-assurance about her talent but less about her life. She was an average teen in many ways, not confident about her appearance or her sex appeal. But she met Gerry Goffin, a handsome, serious-minded guy a few years older who had a way with words. He aspired to be a playwright, and he could craft perfect lyrics for formulaic tunes that rose to the top of the charts in that era. They fell in love and married.

This touring production features Julia Knitel as King and Liam Tobin as Goffin, and they’re exactly right for their roles. She’s gangly and teenaged cute, initially sporting a perky ponytail that was the style in the late ’50s; he has a James Dean-like bad boy appeal, intense and good-looking. They both have the pipes to bring these songs to life; before this tour, Knitel played King for a year in the Broadway production that continues to run in New York City. They’re believable as a pair of too-young teens who marry and have a child before they were ready, all the while pumping out hit tunes.

The way Beautiful handles those tunes is great fun. We watch King and Goffin (and their friendly competitors Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, played by Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser) noodle away at melodies and words. They begin to form a song — Knitel and Fankhauser both play an upright piano (the same one that wheels from King’s mother’s apartment to record producer Don Kirshner’s music offices at 1650 Broadway), and then there’s a magical transition to recreations by other cast members of the hits they became, as recorded by The Drifters (“Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof”), The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), Little Eva (who happened to be King and Goffin’s babysitter until she hit big with “The Loco-Motion”) and the Righteous Brothers (“You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”). With each revelation the audience’s awe for the talent ramps up.

We watch King, Goffin, Weil and Mann grow up. Their stories elevate Beautiful from an average jukebox musical and make it a fine piece of theater — much in the same wayJersey Boys followed the arc of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Beautiful’s first act shows them cranking out hit after hit, the two couples vying for No. 1 on the charts. It’s quite astonishing that these iconic songs were the creative output of such young artists. 

But then, just as they begin to mature, the music world turns a corner. In the mid-1960s, Pop evolved with the rise of the Beatles and other groups who wrote and performed their own music. Goffin’s aspirations to be a serious artist, coupled with his struggles to write songs in the new style, led him to serious dissatisfaction and seriously depressive behavior that ultimately crashed his marriage with King, making “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” a poignant closing number to the show’s first act.

What comes after intermission is a chronicle of King’s growth into a more self-assured artist, combining her skills as composer, lyricist and performer. Her hairstyle had earlier changed from the ponytail to a coiffed bob of ’50s housewives, but in Act II it blossoms into a naturally curly mop. And music pours forth from her, culminating in her legendary 1971 recording, Tapestry. Virtually every song she produced is familiar today, even if younger audiences don’t know King’s story.

The song “Beautiful” tells that story: “You’ve got to wake up every morning with a smile on your face/And show the world all the love in your heart.” It captures the essence of King’s triumphant soul, new and confident. The song is the show’s finale: “You’re gonna find, yes you will/That you’re beautiful as you feel.” King is, and so is the show that tells her story.

BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL, presented by Broadway in Cincinnati, continues at the Aronoff Center for the Arts through May 14. More info and tickets:

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