Reviewed by Jessica Neu
In all likelihood, it is fair to assume that most of the entire audience was not at the open mic night in NYC circa 1970 when Carole King first performed songs off of what would later become her landmark 1971 album Tapestry.
However, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (which plays for a limited engagement this weekend only at the Benedum Center) gives audience members the chance to consider what it would have been like to be at that small club when Carole King first sat down at the piano to play “It’s Too Late.”
The musical could easily be subtitled “the Great American Songbook” as its soundtrack is a delightful whirlwind of some of the most highly lauded and most played songs of all time, prompting audiences to clap, tap, and even break theater tradition and (quietly) sing along. Beautiful tells the story of King’s (Sara Sheperd) life beginning as a young 16-year-old growing up in Brooklyn with dreams of becoming a songwriter. After compromising with her mother that if she is unable to sell her latest song after traveling to Times Square with her friend, she would acquiesce to her dream and focus on her studies of becoming a teacher. In a scene that we have seen many times before in a musical, a young girl enters the big city with even bigger dreams and unabashed optimism.
From the beginning, this story carries a bit more veracity than other fictional musicals due to its autobiographical nature. This is a story of the American Dream. For many in the present-day, that dream seems dated and unattainable. Beautiful revolves around the notion of nostalgia to which there are two forms: personal and historic.
The brilliance here is that show taps into one form of nostalgia for every audience member because they either lived through the depicted era (personal nostalgia) or understand the period through education, historical artifacts, records, videos, etc. (historical nostalgia). Regardless of age, nostalgia evokes feelings of pleasantries and satisfaction as you are temporarily transported back to a time of remembered certainty, ease, joy, and possibly innocence. Nostalgic memories are that of the sacred, and Beautiful indeed projects a sense of sacredness into our present day. Personally, I fell into the historical nostalgia category. I knew all of the songs but had no idea that King and her first husband, Gerry Goffin (James D. Gish), wrote as many well-known songs as they did (e.g., “The Loco-Motion“) throughout their famous relationship.
Beautiful returns us to a pre-digital era where demo tapes, radio airplay, and Billboard Magazine structured the popular music industry.
Each cast member delivers powerful, nuanced performances with unmatched vocal prowess. The choreography is stunning, the set design and manipulation are both creative and seamless. The witty script will have you laughing aloud (they even reference King’s “window seats and cat” when she moves to Laurel Canyon, alluding to the iconic Tapestry album cover).
Beautiful, a modern show, presents as a classic American musical. Still, its content and storyline create a timeless artifact while highlighting King’s life as a songwriter, wife, mother, and “natural woman,” the show also situates each song to highlight its aesthetics. Beautiful not only reminds audiences of the revolutionary and timeless music that arose from the 1960s-early 1970s but also of the beauty and power in a 3-minute song. Beautiful reminds us why we love music.
Ultimately, I had absolutely no idea how much fun I would have at this show! Stay for the curtain call. There’s a Mamma Mia!-like finish that will leave you dancing in the aisle and “move the earth under your feet.”
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, at the Benedum Center, part of the PNC Broadway in Pittsburgh series runs through the 20th. For performance times and tickets visit: https://trustarts.org/production/75324/beautiful-the-carole-king-musical