Review: Carole King musical a ray of Broadway sunshine

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Those of us bogged down by the rainy weather can find sunny solace in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

A touring version of the jukebox musical — concluding its Victoria run Sunday with two shows at the Royal Theatre — offers performances of Carole King’s music so peppy and well sung, it’s easy to ignore the cartoonish dialogue. The 2013 musical is an entertaining overview of a uniquely gifted singer-songwriter, a Brill Building wunderkind who blossomed into an earth-mother goddess with Tapestry.

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You’ll likely find a tattered copy of Tapestry (1971) in the LP collections of any baby boomer. The cover shows King — bare-footed and blue-jeaned with a mane of curly hair — perched groovily on a sun-swept window seat with her cat. Highly influential — partly because it puts a woman in the singer-songwriter driver’s seat — Tapestry offered some defining songs of the 1970s: I Feel the Earth Move, It’s Too Late, You’ve Got a Friend and Natural Woman (the latter also a 1967 single for Aretha Franklin).

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical chronicles not only the Tapestry era but King’s early career as well. A precocious talent, she was just a teen when she started writing songs at New York’s Brill Building, a 1960s songwriting factory. Collaborating with lyricist Gerry Goffin, soon to be her husband, King composed such chart-toppers as Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, The Loco-Motion and Up on the Roof.

They are all performed in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Added bonus: we hear songs penned by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, King’s pals and contemporaries. While Weill/Mann (also a married couple) didn’t achieve the dizzying heights of King/Goffin, they were no slouches, writing such hits as We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place and On Broadway.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical boasts 32 performers. The big cast allows us the luxury of seeing recreated performances by The Drifters, Little Eva and The Shirelles, complete with unison dance moves and far-out 1960s outfits. On Friday night everyone sang, acted and danced with megawatt Broadway pizzazz. The show’s pace was spritely; a six-piece pit band navigated the score nimbly.

Kennedy Caughell didn’t disappoint in the lead role. She shares something of King’s big, rounded, powerful voice — impressing especially with such show-stoppers as Natural Woman. Caughell convincingly conveyed King’s moments of insecurity, such as her nervous transition from behind-the-scenes songwriter to spot-lit performer (King struggled with stage fright).

The roles of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, played by Kathryn Boswell and James Michael Lambert, were also well sung and acted. James D. Gish, as Gerry Goffin, nailed high notes with operatic accuracy and authority. The character of Goffin (Douglas McGrath wrote the book) is presented as being not particularly pleasant — mostly he’s an angst-ridden, philandering rotter.

A key theme is the struggle between Goffin’s desire for a big-city lifestyle and King’s wish for a regular domestic life. This, unfortunately, leads to such sit-com patter as King saying: “We could move to the most beautiful place on Earth — the suburbs.”

The show is replete with crowd-pandering jokiness and clunky dialogue. When King is about to perform at Carnegie Hall, we get this exchange:

Goffin: “I got a prediction. You want to hear it?”

King: “Sure.”

Goffin: “You’re going all the way.”

Despite this, the power of King’s music — wonderfully performed— transcends the limitations of McGrath’s book. The tuneful melodies soar, the gospel-inflected singing thrills. And the lyrics (both King’s and Goffin’s) are clever and often surprisingly moving.

The cast’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre was well appreciated by the audience. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is another strong offering from Henry Kolenko’s Broadway in Victoria series, which also imported worthwhile productions of The Jersey Boys and The King and I.

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