BEAUTIFUL at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts
In the Republic, Plato theorized that all art imitates life and, when it comes to the increasingly more popular genre of bio-musicals, it certainly seems those wise old Greeks guys were onto something. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, opens with the ubertalented Sarah Bockel almost eerily channeling the singer-songwriter as she sat at her trusty Steinway onstage in front of a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall some 47 years ago—her very first solo performance on any major concert stage.
Wearing costumer Alejo Vietti’s faithful replica of the same dress and exhibiting the same nerves, warmth, and incredible talent as the real King gave the world of music, Bockel takes a deep breath, bangs the keyboard fiercely while letting her double's wild mane of curls obliterate her face, and launches into a spot-on recreation of "So Far Away."
Watching the lights come up on Bockel opening night of Beautiful at the equally (almost) majestic Pantages Theatre, it was more than an imitation for me, instantly flashing me back to that night in the summer of 1971 when I sat there in the very front row, my partner Victor Colin and I bookending our dear friend Laura Nyro as we, in something very akin to total awe, observed musical history taking place right before our eyes.
My personal history with Carole goes back two years earlier when, as Talent Coordinator of the Troubadour, the newly transplanted New Yorker would sneak into the Troub during the day to try out her newest compositions on the club's resident grand piano. Our friendship began with my secretary dipping into the closed kitchen to produce a couple of famously juicy (albeit greasy) burgers for Carole and me after she had first been swayed by the cooking smells wafting there during an earlier purloined lunch several days before.
I remember, as we sat on the lip of the stage eating, telling her that the deal for her pal James Taylor to play the club was nearly finalized and, since I knew he has asked her if she would come in as his piano accompanist if that happened, I took the bull by the horns. Since I was knocked out every time I heard her voice drifting up to my office above the stage every time she practiced, I asked Carole if she'd consider being his opening act. It was something I had discussed and conspired to make happen with James, his producer-manager Peter Asher, and her mentor Danny Kirshner, although all three of them were certain she would most emphatically say no.
Carole did more than say no; she practically spit her Diet Coke across the Troubadour floor. "No, I can't ever sing in front of an audience!" she wailed loudly to the empty room where she would soon make her live performing debut several months later in November, 1970. "I'd have a heart attack!"
It was one of those real art-imitates-life moments for me opening night of Beautiful, when Bockel as Carole says the exact same thing to her friends and friendly rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (played by Jacob Heimer and Alison Whitehurst with the added yammy-yammies of having the legendary songwriting team seated right before them in the Pantages audience) when, back before she left the comfort of her native climes, she's asked to come onstage at the Bitter End in The Village to sing one of her songs. I’m not sure if the reference to impending heart failure is a coincidence, something the Manns told bookwriter Douglas McGrath she’s said, or if that phrase was a standard line Carole used whenever she was asked to perform live back then.
In the era of the bio-musical—and it's not hard to picture this one settling in someplace in Las Vegas like Planet Hollywood in the near future for a long and extended run—McGrath's book doesn't compare to Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's surprisingly literate work on Jersey Boys, yet it could rival another current LA visitor, Ain't Too Proud, in fulfilling the And-Then-I-Wrote sweepstakes that conveniently makes possible the welcome revisiting of the music of, respectively, Carole King and the Temptations.
Interestingly, as well as I knew Carole, I was fairly unschooled about what had happened in her life before she came into mine in 1970. I knew she and her first husband, the late Gerry Goffin, had already found enormous success and fame in their late teens by writing some of the most popular tunes in the history of pop music, including the Drifters' "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up On the Roof;" the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow;" as well as "Take Good Care of My Baby," written as an ode to the young couple's five-month daughter Louise; and "Do the Locomotion," the classic that made a quickly-flickering star of the Goffins' babysitter (Little) Eva Boyd, whose goofy dance moves inspired the number and went on to inspire a generation.
Under the fluid leadership of director Marc Bruni, Beautiful is a wonderful diversion, quickly pointing out the indelible groundbreaking music of one of the most successful singer-songwriters in modern history—although for me it was a bit disconcerting to realize most of those in attendance mouthing every lyric looked as though they were wearing Depends under their sequins and carried an AARP card in their wallets. You know; people my age--except I only cop to the AARP card and even that I keep in a desk drawer at home.
Despite the stereotypical behavior of most of McGrath's characters, every performer here takes what's offered and runs with it. On Derek McLane’s versatile and highly kinetic set, the exceptionally talented supporting cast morphs from one 1950s-1960s star to the next with lightning speed, aided by the whimsical choreography by Josh Prince and Vietti’s costuming, something that could be included in a Vegas quick-change act.
In the musical's running subplot, Whitehead and Heimer turn in admirable work as King's lifelong friends the Manns, themselves prolific songwriters here also honored by the inclusion of some of their own well-known tunes: "Walking in the Rain," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and even "Who Put the Bomp," which Mann recorded and performed himself—and was cowritten with Goffin as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the then-current do-wap craze.
James Clow and Suzanne Grodner do yeoman's work in the pivotal yet underwritten roles of Danny Kirshner and Carole's undeniably crusty Brooklyn-fueled mother Genie Klein, but it is Dylan S. Walloch who does something amazing here, making his womanizing, increasingly more mentally unstable Gerry Goffin somewhat sympathetic and less of a villain than the character, as written, could come off as the story unfolds.
Then there's Bockel. Although not the original star of Beautiful on Broadway, to say she radiates everything Carole was about is a major understatement. At once shy, vulnerable, loving, and yet subtly charismatic and strong as an ox as her living legend counterpart navigates fame, fortune, and a mess of a personal life, Bockel is miraculous. Add in a voice that reaches the heights, finds the raspy riffs, and still mines the personal depths of insecurity and emotion that made King's music some of the most enduring of all time, and her performance is worthy of any award offered and made me want to hug her after the show as though greeting an old friend.
I hope you'll indulge me in relating one last story about my personal history with Carole, something that lets me proudly proclaim my part in getting her to perform her own music for the first time ever in front of an audience all those many years ago.
The Troubadour was of course packed that night. Carole finally got the nerve to leave the club's upstairs dressing room, which forced performers to walk across and in front of the balcony seats, down a flight of rickety wooden stairs, and make their way to the stage by pushing directly through the gathered crowds, eventually sitting down sheepishly at her favorite piano while her already adoring fans left their seats and ominously gathered in front of the stage to cheer and howl.
She pursued the crowd with a warm but obviously terrified smile, sighed deeply, hit the keyboard, and launched into the intro to her first number. She had not gotten past more than the first few bars into the song when Michael Shire, announcing from the Troub's lighting booth, stopped her over the loudspeakers with a tentative, "Uh, Carole..."
A bomb scare had been called in, forcing the West Hollywood Sheriffs to descend on the showroom and start evacuating patrons as quickly as possible. After sweeping the stage and every corner of the club for over an hour, the audience, all of whom had been standing outside crowded together on Santa Monica Boulevard, was let to come back in. However, the crowd had attracted a heap on non-paying additional revelers by that time, as well as a few impatient ticketholders from the now monumentally late second show, making the reseating of the audience another long and drawn-out nightmare.
Finally, Carole again sat at her piano to begin what was supposed to be the first 7pm show, now about to start well after 9:30 if I remember correctly. Just before she began, Michael's voice again came over the sound system to say, "Sorry about that, Carole."
"No, no, it's fine, really!" Carole said with a nervous laugh. "I'm just relieved it was a bomb threat and not my playing."
BEAUTIFUL PLAYS INDEFINITELY at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., New York. 212.239.6200 or www.beautifulonbroadway.com
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