Review: ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ at the National Theatre

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is a delightful, heavenly-sounding, Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical about Carole King, who “wrote the soundtrack to a generation.” With a hit parade of King’s greatest songs, the musical generally follows the timeline from the sale of her first song, at age 16, to her breakout best-selling solo album, “Tapestry,” to her first concert performance in front of an audience, at Carnegie Hall, no less. It incorporates terrific tunes that bring the audience back to bygone eras including songs from other writers, such as the “1650 Broadway Medley” which has numbers like “Splish-Splash,” “Love Potion # 9,” “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety-Yak,” “There Goes My Baby,” and “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” Other than that early medley, the words and music are written by King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin or their best friends, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The book by Douglas McGrath aligns the songs brilliantly with the storyline, as young Carole finds song-writing success, love, marriage, heartbreak, and separation, before coming into her own as a performer.

Sarah Bockel as Carole King. Photo by Joan  Marcus
Sarah Bockel as Carole King. Photo by Joan Marcus

While Josh Prince’s choreography and a very talented ensemble keep the polished numbers fun (think the iconic dance steps of the Shirelles or the Drifters), Marc Bruni directs the show brilliantly. Coordinating the transitions from small offices or living rooms to nightclubs, sound studios, or performance stages, he also elicits nuanced performances from all of the leads of this touring company. The scenic design by Derek McLane is wonderfully versatile, technologically astounding, and always supportive of the tone for each setting. Costume designs by Alejo Vietti shifted the ensemble nimbly from the ’50s through the ’70s, with memorable moments of magic such as the Shirelles’ or Little Eva’s instant change from comfortable rehearsal clothes to eye-popping performance dresses.

Magic moments were everywhere among the performances. Heartwarming then heartbreaking, Sarah Bockel as Carole King is a powerhouse. Sympathetic and vulnerable, Bockel is endearing when we see her in her early career harmonizing “Some Kind of Wonderful” or “Take Good care of my Baby” with her writing partner. Her portrayal balances well against Dylan S. Wallach as her lyricist and one-time husband, Gerry Goffin. His early duets with her are lovely and loving. You can see how King falls for him and is devastated when he cheats on her. In the second act, we grow to love King more as we hear her gorgeous takes on “Chains,” “It’s Too Late,” and “A Natural Woman,” which exhibit her personal growth and which are movingly executed.

(L to R) Sarah Bockel, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob  Heimer and Dylan S. Wallach. Photo by Joan Marcus
(L to R) Sarah Bockel, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer and Dylan S. Wallach. Photo by Joan Marcus

Other highlights of the show are Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Heimer as King and Goffin’s songwriting rivals and best friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Whitehurst’s moxie and Heimer’s hypochondria add a terrifically talented, if oddly-paired, comic element to the show. Heimer’s initial skepticism about lyrics such as “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” and his hilariously dispirited rendition of the opening to “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” morphs into a lower key and a fantastic rendition by the Righteous Brothers (Paul Scanlan and John Michael Dias).

Carole King’s story, as portrayed by Bockel and this splendid cast, is Beautiful indeed. This is a delightful tale of a woman’s journey into self-empowerment, with music that will stir joyous memories for those of us of a certain age. Other ages will love it as well, so waste no time in getting tickets.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical plays through December 30, 2018, at The National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20004. For tickets, purchase at the box office, call 800-514-3849 (ETIX), or go online.