The song list for “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is like a lifelong yearbook for Americans and people all over the world.
Carole King, the consummate dean of songwriting, and a lauded performer, was there for our first elementary school dance. She and her collaborators were there for our budding romances. The music of King, her husband Gerry Goffin and lifelong friends Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil were part of our lives on Soul Train and American Bandstand. It was with us at a million bars and break-ups. Road trips and weddings. Lonely nights and raucous parties. King was front and center decades ago, and again just last week when America mourned the legendary Aretha Franklin, who owed part of her success to King. Franklin made King’s “Natural Woman” her own.
King transcended. She and her music reached across generations, the sexes, race, regions and even international borders. She still does.
Everyone who came out Tuesday to see the Denver premier of the Carole King musical at the Denver Center for Performing Arts were a testament to King’s infinite appeal. It was a rainbow of ages and faces.
The rousing show is a love letter to King, and a demonstration of the staying power of her originality and passion for music.
Who wouldn’t want to revisit some of their best memories, set to the Drifters performing “Some Kind of Wonderful” and the Righteous Brothers crooning “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”?
And for those of you who were lucky enough to catch King at a show after the release of Tapestry, or watch her and James Taylor tour their Troubadour show just a few years ago, you’ll want to know if watching anyone of but King play King is satisfying.
Broadway touring veteran Sarah Bockel nails it. She gets King as a 16-year-old musical savant, a nervous mother at 17, a passionate genius in her 20s, a confused divorceé in her 30s and a masterful performer just toying with middle age. Bockel’s King transcends the jukebox musical trap and brings satisfying depth to a show that risks it by packing in everyone’s favorite songs.
The songs move the story and her life along as a precocious Brooklyn teenager who sells her first title to producer legend Don Kirshner, to marriage with song partner Gerry Goffin, children, affairs, endless hits and then divorce. Her tour de force “It’s Too Late” mirrors her equally stunning career zenith, which seems to have lasted for decades. The show begins and ends with King’s coronation concert at Carnegie Hall after releasing her Tapestry album.
Bockel hooks the audience with her first few bars as King, but the entire cast skillfully pulls everyone across decades of hits and memories. The show avoids being trite by casting itself for what it is, a memory book where the past is less painful than what it was at the time. Suzanne Grodner as Genie Klein gets the best lines and delivers them with Post-War Brooklyn Jew comedic power as King’s deep-smoking mother.
Under-appreciated are the designers of this slick show. From Derek McLane’s expansive and silky-smooth set to Alejo Vietti’s endless catalogue of riveting costumes, the entire show comes off polished but not tedious.
“Beautiful” is a show for everyone who’s ever deeply appreciated Carole King’s contribution to American culture, and especially for those who are unsure what that really was.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
At the Elie theater at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Denver through Sept. 9.
Tickets at denvercenter.org