Sarah Bockel is Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Bockel’s Carole confers with (from left) Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia Weil, Jacob Heimer as Barry Mann and Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry Goffin. Photos by Joan Marcus
Almost six years ago, a Broadway-bound musical had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, and though there were a few issues, the show looked like a bona fide hit. Sure enough, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical became a smash on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for star Jessie Mueller and continuing to draw a cheering audience more than five years later.
There’s one simple reason Beautiful is a hit, and that reason is Carole King. The show is at its best when it’s tracking her brilliance and her rise from co-songwriter of a bazillion 1960s hits to legendary singer-songwriter in her own right. Happily, the show is at its best for much of its 2 1/2-hour running time. The only time the enterprise flags is when we get too caught up in a ’60s musical revue cycle and lose track of Carole’s quest to become so much her authentic self that she becomes a legend (that’s not really her quest, but it’s exactly what happens). Sure, there’s a lot of feel-good nostalgia here, but we also get a powerful story of self-actualization that feels real and not just the standard Hollywood cliché.
Now Beautiful is back in San Francisco, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. Since the show’s debut here, it has become funnier, livelier and more polished, all good things for slick Broadway musical biography. But the one constant is the warmth of the characters and the way that warmth makes them feel genuinely connected. Sarah Bockel as Carole has to go from smart-beyond-her-years 16-year-old peddling songs at the Brill Building to Grammy Award-winner performing at Carnegie Hall a little more than a decade later. It’s an evolution Bockel makes with believable grace and goofiness. Like Mueller before her, she’s not exactly imitating King, but she’s giving us enough King-ness to satisfy our craving and remind us that we’re watching a version of what happened to a still-living, still-performing, still-beloved artist.
As Gerry Goffin, the handsome writer King marries and churns out hits (and children) with, Dylan S. Wallach has charm and complication to spare. We can see why Carole is so attracted to him, and we can feel just how heartbroken she is when he breaks out of the marriage and begins suffering from unnamed traumas (unnamed other than “nervous breakdown”). Rather than focus on the drama of a youthful marriage and its eventual dissolution, the plot here revs up a competition between Carole and Gerry and their closest friends (and office neighbors), Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (played, respectively, by Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Heimer). Moving the emotional storytelling to the back burner for a portion of Act 1, book writer Douglas McGrath gives us the Battle for the #1s, with a nonstop stream of hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion,” “One Fine Day” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”
It’s fun, but the glittery revue quality wears a little thin. We’re eager to get back to Carole, so director Marc Bruni refocuses the story in Act 2 as Carole’s marriage is falling apart and the music industry is changing faster than you can say Liverpool.
Beautiful began as a way to celebrate the life and work of King (even though the story stops short just as Tapestry is taking over the world) and has become a living monument to her greatness. She was a skilled songwriter in the ways of the old school, but she, like the world, evolved. She got ahead of the sound and managed to meld song craft and modern sounds in a way that remain fresh and vibrant. This musical and its success was that little push King needed to remind us how essential she is to the 20th-century pop-culture pantheon. May Beautiful continue burnishing King’s iconic status and keep us excited and interested every time she (or her avatar) begins playing that piano.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through July 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit shnsf.com.