By Lynn Venhaus
Legendary singer-songwriter Carole King’s joyous and wistful music is the sound of a generation and her remarkable life story parallels the evolution of women in the 1960s and 1970s.
How she found her voice is chronicled in the wildly popular long-running show, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” now on tour at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for a limited engagement March 12 – 17. The show celebrated its fifth anniversary on Broadway in January.
It’s easy to love this smartly constructed show – compelling rise to stardom story and a glorious score bursting with catchy pop songs. Carole’s character goes through a tremendous amount of growth (and hairstyle changes), so she’s relatable and sympathetic.
Sarah Bockel immerses herself in the role, making a believable transformation from insecure but talented teen into a strong independent woman.
The smooth and crisp production is just as much about the beginnings of rock ‘n roll – the tunes that had a good beat and we could dance to it, as a young Carole was part of the hit machine at the Brill Building, hired by producer Don Kirshner. Her husband, Gerry Goffin, was the lyricist while she wrote the melodies, and the string of hits kept coming.
A wonderful nostalgia is evoked when The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva and other recording artists perform their hit songs, a vivacious blast from the past that strikes a chord: “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day,” “The Locomotion,” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” among them.
John Michael Dias, who was on the first tour at the Fox, and Paul Scanlan as The Righteous Brothers delivered a rousing, soulful “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
The recognition factor to those chart-toppers is high, and the emotional connection to the story is immediate.
Douglas McGrath’s witty and warm book showcases plenty of heart and humor. In addition to Bockel’s affability and believability, Dylan S. Wallach conveys the hard-working early years as well as the pressures of the business that overtook the talented but troubled Gerry.
A supportive sisterhood was in full force opening night, as whoops, hollers and cheers met every “Attagirl!” woman empowerment line in the second act, when Carole emerges from divorce as a solo artist.
Her landmark 1971 album, “Tapestry,” which sold over 25 million copies, won Grammys for Best Record, Song and Album of the Year. It is still one of the bestselling albums of all-time, and the longest Billboard run by a female artist.
My generation knows every single word — still, and showed appreciation Tuesday night, for it was a true lovefest, along with a sentimental flashback to our youth, and a delightful walk down memory lane.
It’s a thrilling, magical moment when Carole decides to sing her own material and tries out ‘It’s Too Late” at the Bitter End.
Another key to this show’s success is because it isn’t just about Carole. Songwriting partners Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (hilarious Jacob Heimer), who were also at work, literally next door, are an integral part of the story. The foursome’s good-natured competitiveness resulted in many standards that defined the rock era, and it’s a sweet reflection on good friendships as well.
The strong cast embodies well-drawn characters. James Clow plays a significant mentor — producer Don Kirshner as both a boss and as a caring friend. Suzanne Grodner reprised her role as Carole’s supportive but nagging mom,
Director Marc Bruni, who has worked at The Muny eight times, kept the focus on the relationships and the work, as the couples go through the changing times of the 1960s. He made sure the show flowed well, with an up-tempo for the most part.
The production team captured the era well. The show isn’t only for Baby Boomers, it is for anyone who loves music and can identify with Carole’s progression. The musical celebrates the music that played in her head with style, rhythm and passion.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is on national tour, and playing at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis March 12-17. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com. For tickets, visit www.MetroTix.com or call 1-314-534-1111.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.