Chicago actor Sarah Bockel is fantastic as Carole King in an uneven show that’s got perfect timing.
When Beautiful—The Carole King Musical first opened on Broadway in late 2013, the buzz was all about former Chicago actor Jessie Mueller’s lead performance; when the first national tour arrived in Chicago two years later, it was Jessie’s sister, Abby Mueller, in the title role. So an audience member might be forgiven for wondering whether the touring production’s return would be worth checking out sans a Mueller. And while there are reasons not to recommend the show, none of them have anything to do with the strength of the lead performance: Chicago actor Sarah Bockel is luminous, earthy, funny, heartbreaking and a singer worthy of King herself. She had big shoes to fill, and she struts in them.
The show takes place roughly from 1959 to 1971, following King’s marriage to her songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer), up through their eventual divorce and her early success as a solo artist. The pair married when King was only 16, and the marriage fell apart under the weight of Goffin’s multiple affairs. Before that happened, however, the duo wrote a string of hits for Dimension Records, owned by Don Kirshner (James Clow), oftentimes competing with their chief rivals and best friends, Cynthia Weil (Sarah Goeke) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer).
Together, the foursome tries to navigate changing musical styles and social norms: Goffin’s desire to be out in the clubs hearing the hip new sounds is also a rejection of the quiet suburban normalcy that Carole craves. When King and Goffin divorce, King literally (literally) finds her voice as a solo artist, overcoming her fear of performing live and writing a cycle of songs that can only be properly sung by one person: herself.
As for the show’s structural drawbacks: If you are a devotee of the King songbook then, by all means, buy a ticket—just know the show’s score leans heavily on King’s early work as a songwriter for groups like the Drifters and the Shirelles, and also includes a number of Weil-Mann joints for good measure. When it comes to King’s solo work, it’s just the hits, songs like “You’ve Got A Friend,” “So Far Away” and, of course, “Beautiful.” “I Feel The Earth Move” gets shunted to the post-bow singalong.
And if you’re going to the theater looking for things like story, characters or conflict, then be warned: Beautiful has an almost admirable aversion to complexity or unpleasantness. The show is dead set on giving audiences an enjoyable night, dammit, and it’s not going to let too many negative emotions get in the way.
The rivalry between the two songwriting teams never once gets in the way of their friendships; Kirshner is—I checked—the only music producer character ever who’s also a genuine mensch; and even King and Goffin’s divorce is filled with grace, understanding and ultimately forgiveness. It’s confounding. This might actually be the most well-adjusted group of characters to ever grace the American stage. If Beautiful has an overarching thesis, it’s that while Carole King might have written a lot of great songs, she did not lead a particularly interesting or eventful life. And yet, it still somehow works.
One thing this production has going for it, beyond Bockel’s wonderful lead performance, is an incredibly strong and charismatic set of leads. Goeke and Heimer, for instance, have enough talent and charm between them to carry 10 shows—let alone serve as the B-leads in someone else’s show.
But there’s another, grander reason that Beautiful works much better than it should: In the current #MeToo cultural moment, some of its greatest flaws are actually strengths. Its aversion to conflict becomes an invitation to sit back and relax. King’s story delivers some much-needed feminist catharsis without forcing audiences to rehash (or relive) the issues of sexual harassment and assault that continue to pour forth outside. Unlike reality, this show doesn’t need trigger warnings.
Carole King wrote a lot of great songs and earned a quiet life. And, you know what? Good for her. We should all be so lucky. We’ll have to settle for seeing Beautiful instead.
Cadillac Palace Theatre. Music and lyrics by Carole King, Jerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann. Book by Douglas McGrath. Directed by Marc Bruni. With Sarah Bockel, Andrew Brewer, Sarah Goeke, Jacob Heimer, and ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins; one intermission.