Jukebox bio-musicals are seemingly a dime a dozen these days—Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is currently playing at the Ahmanson Theatre, and the Pantages Theatre was recently home to On Your Feet, the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical. But Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which just reopened at the Pantages in Los Angeles after a successful run in 2016, feels a little different and more special. A strong central emotional story following the relationship between King (Sarah Bockel) and Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach), her husband and collaborator, takes the show a step beyond the basic “behind the music” feeling many of these musicals take on. Similarly, the fact that King was a songwriter for years before becoming a performer herself adds dimension, as the show can present both the process of creating the recognizable hits and the finished products, performed by actors portraying such artists as The Drifters and The Shirelles.
Carole was a teenage prodigy, skipping two grades to start college at age 16 and selling her first song to esteemed music publisher Don Kirshner (James Clow) the same year. Around this time she meets Gerry, an aspiring playwright and lyricist working a day job as a chemist. They quickly fall in love and when Carole gets pregnant, they marry young and also begin working together, with Carole writing music and Gerry the lyrics. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” become their breakout hits and enable Gerry to quit his day job, and the pair begins working for Kirshner full time. They soon develop a competitive friendship with another in-house writing duo, Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer), the two couples motivating each other to keep reaching the top of the charts.
While everything is going swimmingly professionally, Carole and Gerry begin to have problems with their marriage. Gerry reacts poorly to the shift in work/life balance that results when he quits his day job and begins to “feel stifled,” eventually cheating on Carole with one of the singers they are collaborating with. His mental state deteriorates, his behavior grows erratic, and he begins to exhibit symptoms of what seems to be bipolar disorder, although it is never called by this name in the show. After a second child and many years of trying to make it work, Carole eventually finds the courage to leave him. She writes a bunch of new songs, many about her failed relationship, and overcomes her fear of the spotlight when she realizes only she should be performing them.
King is such an interesting figure because she was simultaneously a teen prodigy and a late bloomer. Her story is an empowering one—after years of tying her worth and success to Gerry, she has to rediscover her own passion and talent. In a key moment, her mother, Genie (Suzanne Grodner) reminds her that she does not need Gerry to write lyrics. She used to do it all without him, and that is ultimately what she does again. Bockel is giving a powerhouse performance, and her voice and demeanor are eerily similar to King’s. Her triumphant performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” towards the end of the musical is a showstopper, and solidifies her journey of coming into her own and becoming the solo artist she always had the potential to be.
The supporting cast is also very strong. Wallach brings a dynamic energy to Gerry, painting a clear picture of his tumultuous journey. Whitehurst and Heimer are charming as Cynthia and Barry, who serve as both complements and foils to Carole and Gerry. A writer who at first dreams of writing classy songs that feel like showtunes, Cynthia is at first driven solely by her career, and it takes Barry, a hypochondriac and former womanizer, to show her there can be more to life. This is also a terrific musical to be a member of the ensemble in, as nearly everyone gets a chance to shine in the moments where the recording artists perform the songs written by the main characters. In addition to those songs already mentioned, the score includes hits such as “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion,” “One Fine Day,” and “You’ve Got a Friend.” While many musicals of this nature can feel like a series of popular songs with thin filler in between, Beautiful is a more fully realized story, one where the book (Douglas McGrath) actually strengthens the music, making the songs more meaningful when they naturally occur. It has plenty to offer for every type of theatergoer, and you’ll be humming the songs for days.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical runs at the Pantages Theatre through September 30th. The running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. Beautiful is also still running on Broadway, and those tickets can be purchased here. After Los Angeles, the tour will play San Diego, Costa Mesa, Minneapolis, Vancouver, and more. For a tour schedule and to purchase tickets for other cities, click here.