Review: “Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” in San Francisco

“Jukebox” musicals tend to use really flimsy connecting material to string together the musical hits of an artist or genre in the creation of a show. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, running now through June 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, has the advantage of having the really interesting true-to-life tale of an American musical icon with which to wrap around a couple of dozen instantly recognized hits.

The show opens with Carole King (Sarah Bockel) opening her triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall show but then moves quickly to her as a 17-year-old songwriter battling with her mother (Suzanne Grodner) over her future. Carole wants to be a songwriter but mom wants her to be a teacher. She agrees to commit to teaching if she fails to sell her latest song. She walks into the office of music publisher Don Kirshner (James Clow) and the rest is musical history.

King spent the first part of her career writing songs for others in partnership with her eventual-husband Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach). There are performances of such numbers as “Some Kind of Wonderful” by the Drifters, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, and “The Locomotion” by Little Eva, who really was Carole King’s babysitter before she hit it big.

“The Locomotion” featuring Alexis Tidwell as Little Eva with Ensemble

The fact that Carole and Gerry’s best friends were another songwriting team increased the musical options for this show. Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) add immensely to the story, both through the recreations of their numerous hits (“On Broadway” by the Drifters, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers) and by the humor their characters bring to the story.  

The deterioration of King’s relationship with Goffin provides the show’s drama culminating with her incredible success as a solo artist and performer with the release of her blockbuster album Tapestries.

Douglas McGrath, better known for his screenplays (Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, Emma) had a lot of material to work with here and does a fine job encapsulating a life in two hours. His book balances the relationship of King and Goffin with that of Weil and Mann almost to the point of the show really being about both. Most amazingly, he’s written a script that features two music industry veterans (Kirschner and Lou Adler (John Michael Dias) who do not come off as weasels.

Sarah Bockel, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer, Dylan S. Wallach

Director Marc Bruni’s cast is uniformly excellent, from Bockel and Wallach as King and Goffin to the ensemble members performing as various members of famous musical groups.  The show maintains a pleasant lightness to it that is never overwhelmed by its more dramatic moments. A good deal of the humor comes from the relationship of Weil and Mann, and Whitehurst and Heimer are terrifically entertaining in their roles.

Dazzling production numbers of a plethora of hits from the 60’s and 70’s combined with the tale of an American original coming into her own make Beautiful: The Carole King Musical a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting evening of musical theatre.

‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ runs through June 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Dates and times vary. $56–$256. 888.746.1799.

Photos by Joan Marcus

This review was originally broadcast on KRCB-FM’s Second Row Center.

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