Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 27, 2019

REVIEW: The Bushnell, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
March 26 – 31, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Is it necessary to be familiar with the music/singing of Carole King to thoroughly enjoy “Beautiful”? The simple answer is “no.” The longer answer is “absolutely not,” as proved by the instant standing ovation at the Bushnell on opening night.

The format is familiar: a fictionalized biography of a now famous singer(s) and/or composer(s) set to his/her/their own music. Think “Jersey Boys.” Presented in chronological vignettes, “Beautiful” is a musical with a story; not just a bunch of songs, albeit 25 terrific and memorable songs. For those in the full audience an “American Bandstand-type” visual backdrop, energetic ensemble characters, and the new sounds of rock & roll create perfect staging and mood. The set also doubled as a recording studio and the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show.

Many causal theater-goers probably have no idea of King’s pre-“Tapestry” talent as a writer for other singers. From the bubble-gum rhythms of “The Locomotion” and “Be-Bob-A-Lula” to the serious “It’s Too Late” and “Up on the Roof,” King and her husband Gerry Goffin were a successful team that put performers front and center.

Sarah Bockel & Dylan S. Wallach
Sarah Bockel (Carole) delivers an outstanding yet subtle Carole. She sings, she plays the piano, she acts. Not all leads in musicals hit the trifecta. She gives her character a humble, matronly demeanor whose family comes first. Yes, Carole knows she is talented, but even more important to her than the appreciation of audiences is her relationship with Gerry. However, as the music gets better, the marriage does not. Dylan S. Wallach (Gerry) nicely depicts a confused young man who doesn’t know where he is headed. Wallach’s best talent is his voice – in duets with Bockel and solos. Note that Bockel will soon take the Broadway stage as Carole King.

Much of “Beautiful” pits the music-maker team of King & Goffin vs. Cynthia Weil & Barry Mann (“On Broadway”). The BFF couples banter as to whose songs will make it to #1 on the charts. Alison Whitehurst (Cynthia) and Jacob Heimer (Barry) perform well together as opposites, with her sophistication and his kvetch-iness.

There are no ensembles of high kicking choreography. Instead, each vocal group performs the movements just like the original guy/gal quartets. Picture a lead singer with three backups striding and snapping in unison, often dressed in purple. It didn’t look quite as funny then as it does 50 years later.

The staging works well to meld what could have been slightly boring song-writing desk scenes immediately and without a hitch into mini-performances with theatrical lighting, giving the musical smooth transitions and pops of energy and color.

“Beautiful” pays fitting tribute to a beautiful talent.