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Sunday, October 02, 2016

Beautiful

How you will respond to Beautiful, the musical that I saw last night at the Smith Center here in Las Vegas, depends on how much you like the songs of Carole King. And why shouldn't you? Her music, which includes some of the most recognizable pop hits of all time, that span the era from girl groups to the Monkees, is the best pop offers. There are also a few songs by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who were no slouches themselves.

The musical itself, with a book by Doug McGrath, is basically exposition with a few Jewish jokes. The show starts when sixteen-year-old King, born Carole Klein in Brooklyn, sells a song to a company run by Don Kirshner (a name that would become familiar to many baby boomers). This early section is very interesting, because songs were turned out like widgets in a place called the Brill Building, with songwriters having offices and turning out songs on order--"I need a song for the Shirelles!" and off they would go. King would meet a talented lyricist named Gerry Goffin. They would marry and team up to write memorable songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," and "One Fine Day." They even wrote a hit dance song sung by their babysitter: Little Eva doing "The Loco-Motion."

The songs were performed by others, such as The Shirelles and The Drifters, who are represented on stage (so is Neil Sedaka, rather cruelly, I thought). Times start to change, though, with singers who write their own material, and Goffin-King try to get with the times. After a move to suburban New Jersey, they write "Pleasant Valley Sunday," which Kirshner gives to The Monkees, a band he is managing (sadly, The Monkees are not depicted).

But Goffin was a man with demons, hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and feeling trapped in his marriage. King catches him in an affair (a moment that kept the real King from seeing the show for a long time) and goes out on her own, overcoming her stage fright and recording an album on her own--Tapestry, which won a Grammy and is one of the best selling albums of all time.

The show itself is a bit clumsy--it's basically set-up, then song. None of the songs are part of the plot, as the art form dictates, which makes it more of a concert with scenes in between. Some of it is funny, especially the scene-stealing Suzanne Grodner as Carole's mother. Mann and Weil, played respectively by Ben Frankhauser and Erika Olson, are comic relief, which is a bit dismissive of them, but one of those most powerful moments in the show is when Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias, as The Righteous Brothers, perform Mann and Weil's "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."

But it's a show about King. Every song you can expect is there, such as "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," "It's Too Late," "So Far Away," "You've Got a Friend," and the title song. King is played ably by Julia Knitel, and Goffin by Liam Tobin. At the curtain call, she led the cast in the one song I was expecting but hadn't heard yet, "I Feel the Earth Move."

So, if Beautiful isn't great musical theater, it is a nice way to spend an evening down memory lane with one of the most gifted songwriters of the golden age of pop.

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