Review: ‘Beautiful’ does justice to scope of Carole King’s life and music in return to San Diego
If it’s true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, that there are no second acts in American lives, then Carole King is one radiant exception: The pop composer co-wrote a string of enduring hits for other acts starting at just 17 — then launched an even bigger (and very different) career as a solo recording artist more than a decade later.
There is a second act in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” too. But even at that, the show — whose Broadway touring production just landed in San Diego for its second visit — can feel as if it takes an awfully long time to get to “Tapestry,” the smash 1971 album for which King is best known.
If that’s a little frustrating for fans of “You’ve Got a Friend,” “It’s Too Late” and other “Tapestry” classics, the way the musical focuses so heavily on an earlier time in its subject’s life makes dramatic sense. King and her then-husband and lyricist, the late Gerry Goffin, had a major impact on the pop world in the ’50s and ’60s, and the story of their rise to fame — and the troubles that came with it — is a compelling one.
“Beautiful” weaves that story into a show that dazzles at times with its splashy visuals, and is stuffed with memorable songs, beginning with such early King/Goffin gems as “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day.”
As King, Sarah Bockel captures a winning sense of both the earthy and the ambitious, and sings with an appealing and versatile voice that echoes King’s own soulful vocals without straying into mimicry.
We do get a quick taste of “Tapestry” at the top of the show, when Bockel, seated solo at a piano, performs a passage from the wistful “So Far Away,” as part of a later-career concert King is performing at Carnegie Hall.
That gig serves as a framing device for the saga of King’s early success, her relationship with the talented but troubled Goffin (played by the charismatic Dylan S. Wallach, another strong singer) and her growing sense of independence.
King and Goffin’s friendly rivalry with the top songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — who minted such hits as “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” — also figures strongly into the ace writer Douglas McGrath’s wide-ranging, often witty telling of King’s life and times.
In fact, it can feel now and then as if there’s too much focus on that pair, although Alison Whitehurst brings an appealingly spiky vitality and a real sense of fun to the role of Weil, and Jacob Heimer is a comic find as the ever-neurotic Mann.
One of the most satisfying aspects of director Marc Bruni’s production is in the way it introduces now-classic songs — the kind whose melodies have long since been burned into our brains — as half-formed little notions that King or others are just starting to plink out on piano.
The music publisher and producer Don Kirshner becomes the first audience for a lot of those soon-to-be hits, and James Clow gives him a funny and likable portrayal that’s matched by the wry supporting work of Suzanne Grodner as King’s mom, Genie.
The tunes come to full fruition thanks to the spirited playing of conductor/keyboardist Susan Draus’ 12-member band. And Josh Prince’s choreography — particularly for numbers by the vocal groups the Shirelles and the Drifters — adds pizzazz to the musical sequences, which unfold on the impressively quick-shifting set by Derek McLane (a designer also represented at the Old Globe right now with the new Huey Lewis musical “The Heart of Rock & Roll”).
When the 150-minute-plus show finally circles back to Carnegie Hall and that long-awaited chance to feel the earth move with King’s “Tapestry” hits, she introduces the title tune with a little plug for the virtues of patience.
Sometimes, King says, life goes the way you want, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“And sometimes when it doesn’t, you find something beautiful.”
‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’
When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Sunday.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Tickets: About $32-$159
Phone: (619/858/760) 570-1100
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