With lights that sparkle and costumes that dazzle, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical works like magic onstage.
Based on true events, Beautiful chronicles the life of singer-songwriter Carole King as she navigates the milestones of her hit career: teenhood, adulthood, the music industry, a whirlwind romance, fame, and success.
The play, which runs through December 30 at The National Theatre in D.C., begins with King alone onstage, save for her piano. She sings a little snippet of “So Far Away,” shaking her signature long curls to the melody. She speaks directly to the audience, drawing them in and setting the stage for an engaging, intimate evening.
Then, the curtains open, bringing the audience back in time and revealing a living room with a different, homelier piano. A younger, exuberant King bounces into the room with her ponytail swinging. She kicks her mom off their home piano and plays the song she has just written. Her mom, quippy and motherly, tells King to forget songwriting and become a teacher. No, King says; she will head to New York City and sell her song and become a star. It is quite the prophecy for a teenager. It is also one of the earliest hints of magic that make Beautiful unforgettable.
This domestic scene is quickly outdone by the bustling atmosphere of the concrete jungle. On scaffolding reminiscent of dollhouse rooms, members of the ensemble stand on different heights, evoking an infectious, celebratory mood. Unicorn-colored lighting fixtures glitter in the background, giving the play its jazzy and effervescent energy. The cast’s multi-level singing and dancing routines frame and enliven the stage. It is a visual metaphor for the theme of upwards mobility that hangs, like a curtain, throughout the play. Onstage, actors shimmy and jive to “1650 Broadway Medley,” a mashup of iconic hits like “Poison Ivy,” “Yakety Yak,” and “Splish Splash.” They are songs of a generation, reimagined.
King made a career out of her soulful authenticity, but this medley proves that not all facelifts are a bad thing. The lively, upbeat, fast pace refreshes favorite song lyrics like “Stupid cupid! Stop pickin’ on me” and “Take out the papers and the trash.” In fact, thanks to the musical prowess, Beautiful swept awards including two 2014 Tonys and one 2015 Grammy. The song list also includes tender, captivating renditions of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” and finally “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Every song both propels the storyline forward and dishes up delightful entertainment. Audiences watch King live out the inspiration for hits such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and then experience the song in a different arrangement, sung by the group that made it famous: Following King, the Shirelles performed “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” in bright matching outfits and groovy choreography, a spot on reenactment.
The geniuses behind these songs (onstage and in real life) are two sets of writing (and eventually romantic) partners: King and Gerry Goffin, and Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Watching the couples fall in love, fall apart, and build an epic friendship inspired by their competition for No. 1 hits is a joy—as is the witty, sexy rapport between the four.
Beautiful spans decades, punctuated by King’s changing haircuts and the ensemble’s changing fashion statements—poodle skirts, mod, boho. It is thanks to the costumes that the play felt so exceptionally magical.
In one scene, singer Little Eva of “Locomotion” fame, goes from babysitter to popstar in all of four seconds. The actor smoothly shrugged off her blazer and it vanished, revealing a skirt. Surely the swish of a wand was at play here. The audience, astonished, “oohed” from their seats.
In the land of Beautiful, everyone is a star. And like real stars, they are just in reach. With a little luck and a little dance, anyone may catch one.