Carole King is among us. Well, sort of. As you may already know, she’s personified in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical. Still thriving on Broadway…where they say the neon lights are bright…now at the Orpheum as part of a road tour.
The show comes alive full of remarkable songs, dynamically personified by director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Price, as well as Derek McLane’s colorful sets which seem to have lives of their own, plus Peter Kaczorowski’s flashy illuminations. And all of the performers sing superbly, many with voices that sound better and more thoroughly trained than those of the pop stars whose images are evoked, The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers, and a group resembling The Chiffons.
Make no mistake, this jukebox musical thrives on making the most of 23 pop numbers, mainly from the 1960s, 15 by King as well as five by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Interestingly, significantly, those 15 are just a fraction of 118 King's pop hits on Billboard's "Hot 100" lists from 1955 to 1999.
The frame for this, as you may know, is part of King’s personal history, sketched lightly. The story takes off from her attempt at age 16 to get music publisher, rock music producer, talent manager Don Kirshner to listen to something she wrote. He likes it. She’s on her way. She meets lyricist Gerry Goffin. They start turning out hits and, hitting it off with each other, get married and later split up. After the split, King develops a further career as a singer. Paralleling that couple are Weil and Mann, first as a team avoiding marriage, then getting together as King and Goffin fall apart. Inventive element. Sometimes the lyrics underscore the preceding dialogue, as in a regular musical.
Much of the first act follows the churning out of one best-selling song after another. The second spends a little more time on the story-line. A few laugh lines crop up now and again. None of that has much depth, nor do the characters as written. Indicative: Kirshner just stands around listening and/or encouraging. Who cares? The tunes call the tune.
Especially in the first act, the non-stop array of singers popping on and off, with constant evoking of that period’s groups’ well-remembered choreography, becomes a memorable nostalgia trip to the days of seeming innocence.
Opening night here Sarah Bockel appeared as King. She sang with moving passion. She substituted for Alaina Mills who performs Thursday and Sunday. Friday and Saturday Elena Ricardo has the role. If they equal Bockel, that would be some kind of wonderful. Among the 21 other members of the cast Ben Fankhauser has distinctive personality as Barry Mann. The spotlight gleams, as well it should, on the hardworking ensemble constantly coming across with flawless pzazz.
Here are some of King’s best-known numbers on this hit parade: “So Far Away,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and, of course, “Beautiful.” The program book does not identify who wrote which song such as Gene Vincent and Tex Davis’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” and “On Broadway,” which Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller co-wrote with Weil and Mann. Actually none of the others by the last two named are credited either. Nor King, for that matter.
Douglas McGrath wrote the elemental book. He’s got worthy credits elsewhere. He was nominated for an Academy Award and a BAFTA for his work on Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. He’s written scripts, among others, for Infamous, Nicholas Nickleby, Company Man and Emma and directed some. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_McGrath.
You’ve got to hand it to King, she’s the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century. Not that that means these songs have great melodic depth nor brilliant lyrics, but they are an enduring part of our culture and worth re-visiting, as full of memorable vitality as this production.
Beautiful-The Carole King Musical runs through April 9, Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St.Thurs: 7:3o p.m. Fri.: 8 p.m. Sat.: 2 & 8 p.m. Sun.: 1:30 & 7 p.m. Tickets $35-$120. https://www.omahaperformingarts.org/