Photography by Ellie Kurttz with permission for Varsity

Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry, turning 60 this year, is a landmark. Emblematic of King’s dramatic evolution from an unknown songwriter for-hire to an iconic singer-songwriter. Beautiful! The Carole King Musical is a tribute to her success. We begin at the end, with the musical opening and closing at New York’s Carnegie Hall in the wake of King’s seminal, 1971 album Tapestry. Immediately we are braced, ready to embark on this retrospective journey with King.

Beautiful! chronicles King’s life, from her meeting with Gerry Goffin, her future creative and romantic partner, to her metamorphosis into a solo artist. King and Goffin co-wrote singles for stars to sing into the stratosphere – Little Eva’s ‘The Loco-Motion,’ the Shirelles’ ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow,’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ among them – and King’s own life has been used a source of perspective.

“The songs take up so much space that the narrative only has time for its twits or climaxes”

The production attempts to add complexity to King’s most successful music. A perfect example of this is found in the rendition of King’s first number 1 hit, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ as it shifts its meaning from the couple’s first night together to King’s fears of her husband’s infidelity. Or ‘One Fine Day’ which depicts her husband’s eventual affair from the perspective of both of the women involved. This production attempts to build the narrative around King’s hits and sometimes, like in the former example, adds a powerful layer of emotional context to a well known classic but, often, as in the latter example, only serves to undercut the gravity of the narrative.

However, this is a problem built into the biographical jukebox genre as a whole. The songs take up so much space that the narrative only has time for its twits or climaxes. This structure provides diminishing returns, the narrative becomes melodramatic and the characters never feel fully three dimensional.

“This unnuanced approach is elevated by the staggering musical talent present in the cast”

The biggest let-down is how the musical short-changes Carole King. We are never given a deep understanding of her or, more importantly, shown the impact of her climb to the top of the music industry and the importance of each step in that journey being taken on her own terms. The narrative is built around a repetitive, simple formula. Set up a popular song, have a moment of brief interpersonal drama and then skip to the next song on the greatest hits playlist.

photography by Ellie Kurttz with permission for Varsity

This unnuanced approach is elevated by the staggering musical talent present in the cast. The stand out performance came from Amena El-Kindy, playing King’s former babysitter Little Eva, in ‘The Loco-Motion’ on roller skates and does it with ease. Edd Lindley’s phenomenal costumes elevate this production with cloudy suits and eye-popping glitter jackets for the Drifters, and fur-trimmed gowns for the Shirelles providing an extravagant look.

As far as pure entertainment is concerned, the story comes with songs that can thrill an audience and are performed beautifully by all involved, with Molly-Grace Cutler capturing the essence of Carole King beautifully. In terms of musical ability, the show is more than deserving of its Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album and its two Tony awards.

If you want to succinctly describe Beautiful!, I would use the word simple. The jukebox bio-musical is a popular genre for very obvious reasons. You love Carole King, you love her story, why not combine the two. However, it is inevitable that in a genre with such defined tropes and such guaranteed success, these productions often feel, if not bad, unoriginal. Beautiful! is no different. The usual tropes, a troubled marriage, the blurring of personal and professional lives and difficulty dealing with success, are all here.


Mountain View

Green Garry Bonds’ Balanced Breakfasts throws some curveballs

But, fundamentally, this is a Carole King musical, one that celebrates her, her career-defining and, rightly, puts it at the forefront. Carole King is an era-defining artist, with a body of work and influence that will leave her name forever in the minds of those who have heard even just the first few bars of ‘It’s Too Late.’ Beautiful!, however, will not be equally remembered, but, with a talented musical cast and excellent source material, it is an engaging tribute to the music legend.

Beautiful! The Carole King Musical. Written by Douglas McGrath is on from the 10th to the 21st of May at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.