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Review: ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ at The Hippodrome Theatre

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Little Carol Klein of Brooklyn, New York, did herself proud when she blossomed into songwriter Carole King. In 2013 her hit-parade of a life came to Broadway as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. A few years and several cast changes later, it is still Beautiful in the all-pro presentation at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre.

Julia Knitel (Carole King), Erika Olson (Cynthia Weil), Ben Fankhauser (Barry Mann), and Liam Tobin (Gerry Goffin). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Is it “a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure”? That question posed in one of her first hit records is not likely to matter at all to playgoers. Either way they come out the big winners here.

The book by Douglas McGrath pares things down to a concise series of signposts even Burma Shave might envy. We see the 16-year-old King find a home for her songwriting ambitions at the famous Brill Building of the early 1960s. After finding the right writing partner in Gerry Goffin, she churns out a number of Billboard hits for a stable of studio singers, most of them managed by producer Don Kirshner.

The entire first act here is a carousel of catchy singles by King and others writers vying for promotion. The big moments always revolve around the creation of one of the pair’s signature hits: “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” “Up on the Roof,” “One Fine Day” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” to name a few.

The romance and subsequent dicey marriage of King and Goffin undermines the team’s success even as their friendly rivalry with another mismatched couple, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, produces an alternative classic rock playlist for Baby-boomer: “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” foremost among them.

Anyone who is more than casually aware of King’s career will know that Beautiful is only skin deep when it comes to all of its principals. It is no more probing than Jersey Boys or any of a dozen other so-called “jukebox musicals.”

But Beautiful does benefit from arriving at one central truth gleaned from King’s biography: Believing in oneself is the first and perhaps biggest challenge in people’s lives.

Feisty and likeable Julia Knitel is easy to embrace as Carole King. She performs at the piano quite naturally, singing many of those beloved hits with a pleasant and unerring musicality. As an actress, Knitel conveys the character’s brash spontaneity and self-doubts with a pleasant tomboyish mix of unassuming enthusiasm.

Newcomer Erika Olsen is also indelible and strong as Cynthia Weil. She has a winning voice and a knack for offhanded humor that tickled the audience again and again with its unaffected delivery.

The leading men in the cast are also well chosen. With his strong singing voice and natural delivery, Andrew Brewer makes a strong impression as the outgoing but susceptible Gerry Goffin, especially in his revealing “Up on the Roof” number.

As Barry Mann, Ben Fankhauser amuses early on as a nebbishy hypochondriac but proves himself capable of winning Weil’s hand and becoming a counterculture hero with his knockout guitar solo “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

The Drifters (l to r) Jay McKenzie, Paris Nix, Josh A. Dawson, and Sidney DuPon. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Curt Bouril’s overgrown mama’s boy act as Don Kirshner manages to tamp down audience expectations of a one-dimensional predatory producer. John Michael Dias is excellent in a series of cameo drop-ins as Neil Sedaka, Lou Adler, and others. And Suzanne Grodner zings home a lot of motherly wisdom as Genie Klein.

Getting all of the smooth moves from Choreographer Josh Prince are the various top-notch African-American singing stars of the day like Little Eva, The Drifters and The Shirelles. They are wonderfully evoked here by Salisha Thomas, Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Jay McKenzie, Noah J. Ricketts, Erin Clemons, Rosharra Francis, Caliaf St. Aubyn and Traci Elaine Lee. The latter does an outstanding job with her solo on “Uptown.”

Set within the versatile environment of metal scaffolds, mile-high panels and banks of colored bulbs, this road production has been fluidly staged by original Director Marc Bruni. Lighting Designer Peter Kaczorowski overcomes the challenge of frequent time and place changes with resourceful transition devices.

Sound Designer Brian Ronan recreates the excitement of all those original recordings while bringing them immediacy and dimension.

Yes, the showbiz pros are up to their old repackaging tricks. They’ve polished up the soundtrack of our youth and are selling it to us again. In the case of Beautiful, though, it’s a real pleasure spending more time with Carole King and her music, which may indeed turn out to be a “lasting treasure.”

Running Time: About two and one-half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays through January 29, 2017, at the Hippodrome Theatre  at The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center – 12 North Eutaw Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call Charge-by-phone at 800-982-ARTS, or purchase them online.

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