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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

‘Beautiful’ Nostalgia Fills the Hippodrome

Julia Knitel as Carole King Photo:Joan Marcus
Most of us who enjoy the music of the 60’s may recall how that era was dominated by the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, the Motown artists and so on.  What seems to fly under the radar in many people’s memories are the works of the prolific music-composing duos of Carole King and Gerry Goffin as well as Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil who churned out a string of classic pop songs during their illustrious careers.  #hocoarts

With the jukebox musical Beautiful-The Carole King Musical now playing at the Hippodrome Theatre, we not only get to relive many of those hits and experience some surprise as to which artists covered them, we catch a glimpse into the early career and life of Carole King through the book written by Douglas McGrath.  Mann and Weil also played a part in King’s professional beginnings and are portrayed in the show as well.

It is sheer delight to reminisce about the old standards as the music dominates Beautiful. However, there is a mixture of drama, romance, infidelity, heartbreak and comedy to weave the songs together that features a talented cast and superb orchestration with Nick Williams at the helm. Mark Bruni skillfully directs this two-time Tony Award winning production, which is currently on tour.

Carole King standards “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” You’ve Got a Friend” and “Beautiful” are performed with feeling by Julia Knitel in the title role.  

Yet, the songs that the Goffin-King team wrote that were covered by other artists shed light on the versatility and expanse of their catalogue that consist mostly of ballads.  In fact, King’s first ever song she composed, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” at the age of 17 was recorded by the girl group Shirelles in 1960 that catapulted to Number 1 on the Billboard chart.

Other hits from this duo include “Take Good Care of My Baby” for Bobby Vee, “Up on the Roof,”  and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (Drifters), “One Fine Day” (Chiffons), “The Locomotion” (Little Eva), “Pleasant Valley Sunday’ (The Monkees), “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Aretha Franklin).

Backup singers in the Ensemble Songs emulate selected numbers by Neil Sedaka, the Shirelles,  The Drifters, Little Eva, The Chiffons (referred to in the program as Janelle and the Backup Singers) and The Righteous Brothers with sparkling precision adding joy to the production. 

All are decked out in colorful 60’s era costumes designed by Alejo Vietti with the women dressed in satiny gowns similar to the original performers wore when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, concerts, and the like.

The team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who emerged as friendly competitors during those early years, were no slouches either.  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (Righteous Brothers), “Walking in the Rain” co-written by Phil Spector (Ronettes, and Jay and the Americans among other groups), “On Broadway” (Drifters), and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (The Animals).  All of these songs are included in Beautiful.

As one hit after another rolls out during the show,  Carole King’s story from an ambitious 16 year-old living in Brooklyn, NY with her mother Genie Klein (played deliciously by Suzanne Grodner) to her pregnancy and marriage as a teenager to song-writing partner Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer) unfolds. 

With their success mounting, Gerry, played by Andrew Brewer, feels suffocated in the marriage after the birth of their daughter and wants to have an affair with Janelle.  Hurt, Carole plods on with her career while hoping Gerry would return.  Those hopes were dashed, however, when Gerry is discovered with yet another woman and Carole ends the marriage in a dramatic high point of the show.

Ms. Knitel as Carole displays a lovely, clear singing voice throughout.  Her vocal resemblance to Carole King is strong, which enhances the reality of the show. 

Mr. Brewer also performs well in the numbers he is called upon, such as “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Ben Frankhauser sprightly plays the nerdy hypochondriac but talented Barry Mann with excellent comedic timing and body language.  His rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” is strong.

Erika Olson plays Cynthia Weil with a bouncy, sweet demeanor. Mann and Weil’s marriage was also headed in the wrong direction as their successful career proceeded but ultimately managed to straighten it out.  There are frequent comedic exchanges between the members of this couple while the interactions between Carole and Gerry are much more serious.

As Don Kirshner who launched Carole King’s stunning career, Curt Bouril does a wonderful job as the demanding record producer.

And who doesn’t love a witty Jewish mother form Brooklyn?  Sardonic and endearing, Ms. Grodner provides hilarious moments throughout the show. 

“If there’s a choice between Times Square and hell, the good people will choose hell,” she said when 16 year-old Carole wanted to venture into Manhattan to have a song she wrote,  “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” produced. 

This fine production is aided by the multi-level, colorful scenery designed by Derek McLane.  Two large towers with oblong panels that house lights appear in most of the scenes. There are also two scaffolds where performers can reach by stairs to offer a different sight line.  Drop-down scenery is also employed.  An abstract background is used to depict a recording studio.

This set is amplified by the hue-rich lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski which makes good use of the lights embedded in the towers.

All this makes Beautiful-The Carole King Musical a sight to behold and enjoyable to hear. The audience was chomping at the bit to sing along to the familiar songs but struggled to hold back until the very end when after the curtain call, the ensemble led the spirited “I Feel the Earth Move” and everyone joined in. 

Turn back the clock and enjoy this wonderfully executed trip down memory lane.  Indeed, it’s a beautiful experience.

Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Beautiful-The Carole King Musical runs through January 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St, Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, call Ticketmaster at 800-982-ARTS or visit ticketmaster.com or BaltimoreHippodrome.com.

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