“It’s daunting playing someone who’s still alive,” says Julia Knitel, 23, who takes on the title role in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. “But it’s a great privilege because she’s so well-loved. The audience comes in on her side, so they’re inherently on my side.”
It’s easy to root for Knitel…or Carole, I suppose, though the two became inextricable at Tuesday night’s Hippodrome performance. From her first moments onstage as an eager teenager to her last as a soloist in Carnegie Hall, she’s captivatingly charming—thin and shy, with a nasally New York accent and unmistakable talent.
The show chronicles King’s rise to fame, couched in her personal trials and triumphs. The first act takes place largely within the walls of 1650 Broadway, a sort of song factory and an immersive delight for the audience, with talented musicians spouting off the hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s at intervals. It’s at 1650 where Carole’s songwriting career truly blossoms, aided by lover and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin, who’s terribly handsome but a bit too hate-able as things take a turn for the worse). There, too, she meets competition-turned-comrades Barry Mann (a hilarious Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (firecracker Erika Olson).
Though Wikipedia would say otherwise, Knitel insists Beautiful isn’t a jukebox musical—and I’d agree. The production is certainly peppered with King’s compositions and other tunes from the era (and with considerable frequency), sure to please fans that are here for the hits. But the characters aren’t spontaneously breaking into song, either. As composers, it only makes sense that they perform their works (or that they’re performed by groups such as The Drifters—who were among the most talented members of the cast—or The Shirelles). And Carole’s solo performances were just that, whether on stage or in her living room, crooning “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” to Gerry (Knitel’s favorite to perform, incidentally, due to its crowd-favorite status).
The cast is young—Knitel’s 23, Olson 22, and most others similar in age—which serves the story well until about ¾ of the way through. There is indeed something very “singular and fresh” about the young actors’ energy, as Knitel puts it, but they lack a bit of called-for world-weariness by the musical’s end.
Overall, though, Beautiful is a spectacular delight—a feast for the eyes and ears that’s certainly “Some Kind of Wonderful.”