Born in 1942, and raised in Brooklyn, Carole King began piano lessons with her mother in early childhood. By 16, she was already a student at New York’s Queen College, and was racing off to Manhattan’s Brill Building, that great pop music factory, to demo her songs.
By 17, head over heels in love with Gerry Goffin, the fellow student and gifted lyricist who quickly became her songwriting partner, she was pregnant and married (in that rapid-fire order). And by the early 1960s, the pair had racked up a series of top Billboard hits (many of them still classics), including “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” which was recorded by The Shirelles and became the first No. 1 hit for a black girl group.
‘BEAUTIFUL — THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL’ Highly recommended When: Through Jan. 28, 2018 Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph Tickets: $30 – $115 Info: www.BroadwayInChicago.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
But that is only the beginning of the story told in “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” the 2014 Broadway musical hit that garnered a top Tony Award for Chicago-bred actress Jessie Mueller, and was later played by her sister, Abigail Mueller, among others. Now, as the national tour of the show has returned to the Cadillac Palace Theatre, King is being portrayed by Sarah Bockel — yet another gifted actress with Chicago theater roots, whose credits range from “Million Dollar Quartet” to productions at BoHo Theatre and Aurora’s Paramount.
The show, a savvy jukebox musical with a deftly penned book by Douglas McGrath that includes the songs of King (written alone and with Goffin), as well as the couple’s competitive but deeply devoted friends, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, is bookended by King’s legendary 1971 solo concert at Carnegie Hall. That was the event that signaled King’s immense success as a solo artist with a multiple Grammy Award-winning album, “Tapestry.” It also signaled a personal triumph — one that marked King’s “liberation” from a productive but ultimately heartbreaking marriage. And perhaps it is a sign of these times that Wednesday night’s audience burst into the wildest applause when King finally told Goffin (a philanderer who also suffered from severe depression) that she’s had enough pain, and that their marriage was over. It was as if the feminist revolution of the 1970s had come full circle.
But there is far more to this show than biography. There is the vibrant sense of a musical era in the making, with change evident not only in the swift shifting of styles, production and popular tastes, but in the infectious rhythms and brilliant moves that went with all that. The Cadillac Palace is not as intimate a house as the one in which this show began on Broadway, yet Marc Bruni’s direction, which benefits from a subtle bit of speeding up and Josh Prince’s sensational, superbly executed choreography for such synchronized groups of the era as The Drifters and The Shirelles, makes the whole thing irresistible.
Bockel’s voice is ideally suited to channel King, and her shifts from a teenage prodigy who nevertheless yearned for a traditional family life, to an independent woman with hard-won confidence, is winningly limned here. As Goffin, Brewer aptly suggests the restlessness and sense of entrapment that came with marrying far too young. And Sarah Goeke is ideal as the chic and confident Weil, who wisely keeps the comically hypochondriacal Mann (played to nerdy perfection by Jacob Heimer), as a professional partner just long enough to be sure they can have a successful marriage.
As Genie Klein, King’s classic Jewish mother, Suzanne Grodner nails every line to perfection. And there are irresistible sequences courtesy of The Drifters (Josh A. Dawson, Jay McKenzie, Avery Smith and Kristopher Stanley Ward), and The Shirelles (McKynleigh Alden Abraham, Traci Elaine Lee, Marla Louissant and Alexis Tidwell).
Of course in the end, it is the songs — “I Feel The Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “On Broadway,” “Up on the Roof” — that drive the show, and serve as a reminder of the genius that was in the air at the time. A further reminder came when King, who remains a vibrant presence, received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2015 and was memorably feted by none other than Aretha Franklin.