Review: Carole King's Life is Celebrated Magnificently in 'Beautiful'
Written by Marin Heinritz. Photo: Katie Fay Francis as Carole King in "Beautiful," at Saugatuck Center for the Arts.


“Sometimes when life doesn’t go the way you want, you find something beautiful,” declares Katie Fay Francis as Carole King, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, from behind a piano at the start of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at Saugatuck Center for the Arts.

The multiple Tony Award winning 2014 show with book by Douglas McGrath begins the way it ends, with King performing her iconic songs solo at Carnegie Hall, and it is, indeed, a beautiful frame for this nostalgic coming-of-age jukebox musical about one of the most prolific and beloved songwriters of the 20th Century. The story strings together the songs of hers we know as well as so many hit songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s we might not realize she wrote; however, it also has real heart as well as humor, and ultimately tells an inspiring story about women’s empowerment through one exceedingly humble woman who finds and uses her glorious voice at a moment of cultural revolution. 

Universally excellent and nuanced, triple-threat performances from the two-dozen cast members make this textured story spring to life, yes, beautifully, along with perfectly arresting and complementary technical elements: a glorious, multi-level, Mid-Century-inspired set by Ranae Selmeyer that, beautifully lit by Jennifer Kules, effectively shifts between glitzy concert performances and intimate interior scenes, thanks in part to lightening-quick scene transitions; as well as fun, quick-change, sleight-of-hand, period costumes coordinated by Emily Stein. All together it makes for a dazzling effect and seamless storytelling under exceptional direction from Kurt Stamm.

“When I hear a good song I feel like someone understands me,” King says before she’s King, when just a Brooklyn girl named Klein who aspires to write songs rather than teach, the profession her overbearing yet hilarious mother (Gino Milo) has in mind for her. And so it begins: she sells her first song; partners with lyricist Gerry Goffin (Elliott Litherland) while they’re still teenagers—with whom she quickly gets pregnant and then marries; befriends other songwriting team and couple Cynthia Weil (Payton Reilly) and Barry Mann (Kyle Southern) with whom they have a rousing competition for hit songs; the marriage falls apart in ways marriages do, though she’s the one who’s wronged; and at that turning point she begins writing songs that only she can sing. 

And the chronology comes about with the marvelous, familiar songs, performed in the first act first in the studio and then with spectacular “Dreamgirls”-style numbers, all under excellent music direction from Tom Vendafreddo and a wonderful live orchestra conducted by Josh Keller. It often feels like an exciting concert when actors performing “On Broadway” as The Drifters, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” as The Shirelles, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” as The Righteous Brothers, and “The Locomotion” as Little Eva completely light up the stage with terrifically fun choreography that’s both of its time and delightfully contemporary by Jay Gamboa. 

But as fantastic as those big, flashy number are, when Francis takes the stage in the second act to perform the soulful songs from Carole King’s 1971 best-selling album “Tapestry,” she is transformed, her metamorphosis—paired with the songs that carry memories for each of us, such as “You’ve Got a Friend” and “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman”—utterly moving.

It’s easy to find something powerful with which to connect in this show. An opportunity to hear hit songs that have endured the test of time such as “It’s Too Late” and “So Far Away” performed live may be the initial draw for audiences to this show, but the touching true story and tremendous performances with stunning visuals are what will make the earth move under your feet by the end of “Beautiful.”

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Saugatuck Center for the Arts
June 22-July 14