“Sometimes when life doesn’t go the way you want, you find something beautiful,” declares Sarah Bockel as Carole King, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, from behind a grand piano. Curtain’s up on Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at Miller Auditorium, she's sung “So Far Away,” the lovely ballad (to which most everyone in the English-speaking world can hum, if not sing along) with an astounding orchestra, more than half of which is made up of local musicians, and it’s clear a triumphant story is set to unfold.
The show begins the way it ends, with King performing 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 the songs we didn’t realize she wrote; however, it also has real heart as well as humor, and is mythic in the way it ultimately tells an inspiring story about women’s empowerment through one woman who finds and uses her glorious voice at a moment of cultural revolution.
This is thanks to universally excellent performances by the two-dozen cast members, big, glorious, moving sets by Derek McLane with seamless transitions lit by Peter Kaczorowski, and fun, quick-change, sleight-of-hand, period costumes by Alejo Vietti, with all of it under the superb direction of Marc Bruni.
“When I hear a good song, I feel like I have a friend in the room,” 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 (Suzanne Grodner) has in mind for her. And so it begins: she sells her first song; partners with lyricist Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach) while they’re still teenagers — with whom she quickly gets pregnant and then marries; befriends other songwriting team and couple Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer), 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 then she starts writing songs that only she can sing.
And the chronology comes about with the marvelous songs, performed in the first act first in the studio and then with dazzling “Dreamgirls”-style numbers. It often feels like a concert when actors perform “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. They completely light up the stage with period-accurate and fun synchronized choreography by Josh Prince.
But as delightful as those big, flashy numbers are, when Bockel 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 utterly moving. Natural Woman indeed. She might as well be Carole King herself 45 years ago.
Not that she has to be. 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 “You’ve Got a Friend” performed live may be the initial draw for audiences to this show, but the touching true story and fantastic performances with stunning visuals are what will make the earth move under their feet by the end of “Beautiful.”