In my October 2013 review of the world premiere of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” I had compared Carole King to Harry Potter, and even though I had not read that review in some time, that comparison is still apt.
You just cannot find a more unassuming genius like Carole King, played with great heart by Sarah Bockel in the touring production that makes a quick stop through Sunday, Nov. 19th in downtown San Jose. She is portrayed as a loquacious frump, who says something self-deprecating with every other sentence. And when she is not jumping all over the tinny family piano and trying to reason with her mother who kvetches entirely too much, she is rushing off to Manhattan trying to sell a song. All this while attending classes at Queens College, a young girl of only 16.
It is at Queens where she meets a boy that she immediately finds to be out of her league, the rebellious yet brilliant Gerry Goffin (Matt Faucher) and a connection is formed. The connection has less to do with physical attraction, but an attraction of the mind. These are two precocious kids, one has a way with music and the other has a way with words as a budding playwright. And it does not take long for this connection to turn into a combination of love and success.
That success comes in the form of hit after hit, seeming to always edge out another formidable pair of songwriters, the venerable Barry Mann (a charming Jacob Heimer) and wunderkind Cynthia Weil (Aashley Morgan). A friendship builds between the four, unlikely as it seems based on this ultra-competitive pop music factory of the time. Super producer and publisher Don Kirshner (James Clow) leads this famous pop music factory.
The constant pressure for Goffin and King to produce the next hit takes its toll. You can see it early in the exhaustion of Goffin, who comes up with the amazing hit “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” This is one of the best tableaus of the show – Goffin, sleeping on the couch, exhausted from his chemist day job but working constantly to put words together, while King sings softly as the song comes alive.
Songs bloom in many forms throughout the show, and these hits show up along with the slick dance moves of the Drifters, the grace and glitz of the Shirelles, and much to the chagrin of Mann, the juvenile pop of the Goffin and King babysitter. Even the babysitter gets a number one hit, Mann bemoans.
Their hits and the ease in which they worked together made other aspects of their life much more complicated. As Weil decides against marriage because of more pragmatic reasons, Goffin and King were terribly young when their child was conceived, and marriage made sense. Yet unfortunately, Goffin cannot get out of his own way most of the time, with King feeling like a return home will bring him back to the boy she fell in love with back at Queens. It’s an ugly circle of going nowhere fast.
The performances on this national tour are mostly solid. While some of the initial dialogue between people seems to move with a bit too much staccato and not enough truth, there are still magnificent performances all around. Bockel has big Beautiful shoes to fill as King. Jessie Mueller and sister Abby have defined the role in many ways, and Bockel is up to the task, with the right inflections and insecurities to make her performance a winner.
It takes a bit more to ease into Faucher’s performance, which at first seems a bit stiff. But as he goes on and begins to share his powerful voice, he becomes to dig a bit deeper into a character that becomes darker and more confounding.
Carole King is so spectacular because she’s not. In today’s world of carefully constructed pop stars and the static world of safety led by a public relations representative, King is devoid of pretense. The album cover on “Tapestry” looks like it was taken in less than a minute, with King relaxing with no shoes and a cat sitting nearby. But in some of the best moments of the show, hearing her sing the songs that became that album is quite the catharsis, a woman who found her voice and strength all while digging herself out of constant self-doubt and a marriage that couldn’t stay above water. The power of those tunes, such as “It’s too Late” and especially “Natural Woman” makes you feel that Carole King is not just singing for millions but speaking to millions more.
King found her voice because of the encouragement of many, and the need to speak. And in the spirit of the boy wizard, there is no doubt that at a time when women were supposed to only teach music, before she made it to Carnegie Hall, plenty of folks came right up to her, looked her in the eye and said, “You’re a singer, Carole.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Broadway San Jose presents “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
Book by Douglas McGrath
Music and Lyrics by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Word: A show that’s magic still holds up well since its 2013 world premiere in San Francisco.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Running Time: Two hours, 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
The San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA
Through Nov. 19th
Tickets range from $43 – $128
For tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or visit broadwaysanjose.com