Opening night of Beautiful played a little like the last scenes of Motown where people try to get a bitter Berry Gordy, abandoned by the stars he started off, to attend a party for the 25th anniversary of his record label. The big question Jan. 12 at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre was whether Carole King would show up for the story of her life, and, because no one would say for sure she wouldn’t magically materialize in the wings, hope was held.
It didn’t happen. Some people just won’t take "No" for a definitive answer.
From the beginning, La King wanted no part of musicalizing her saga and, all things being equal, would just rather not, but she did grudgingly green-light the project and got so far as the intermission of the second reading before she bolted for the exit, throwing her approval and blessings to the creatives on her way out and vowing, unequivocally, never to return. It was bad enough to live it once. Why, she reasoned rather sanely, relive the pain of hammering your way into the male-dominated world of '60s pop music while holding together a floundering marriage, caring for two daughters and writing an all-time hit parade of songs?
In lieu of King, we were left with the next best thing — an honest, earnest, flaw-free facsimile of her from Jessie Mueller, giving a full-hearted account of King's life and tunes — all that, plus a near-perfect approximation of her sound as she leafs lovingly through King evergreens like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," "It Might As Well Rain Until September," "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Some Kind of Wonderful," "It's Too Late," et al.
The point of the show, and the triumphant example of King's life, is that pain often informs art, and this is superbly summed up in the first-act curtain number, "One Fine Day," delivered center-stage by The Shirelles, flanked on the left by King and on the very far right by her then husband and lyricist, Gerry Goffin, who has just told her he wants to be with the Shirelles' lead singer, Janelle. Gradually, the loud sounds fade, King takes over the song and you suddenly hear the hurt that went into the writing of it.
Making the event however, was Gerry Goffin, now a graybeard 50 years down the road from the day he showed up in duck tails and a black leather jacket and met the easily dazzled teen named Carole King.
Also present were Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, the couple in the next cubicle who were constantly racing them to the top of the Billboard charts. So another county — or cubicle — is heard from: "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Walking in the Rain." "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," "On Broadway," "Uptown" and "He's Sure the Boy I Love."
The Weil-Mann subplot — her putting career over marriage, him a chronic skirt-chaser and hypochondriac — comes off as comic relief compared to the angst that King goes through with the philandering and flaky Goffin before she gives him the gate.
What the curtain call lacked in a King-sized miracle, it made up for in plentiful tears. Then, first-nighters hiked or cabbed it across 42nd Street and soon filled to capacity the cavernous Cipriani. We're talking gridlock. "Looks like the whole theatre showed up," groused an investor, drinking in the overflow. Glasses of champagne and a fleet of coat-checkers greeted arrivals at the door. A sumptuous spread had been laid out.
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