Review: ‘Beautiful’ stands out with hit songs, message of female empowerment

“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” opened Tuesday night at Eisenhower Auditorium.
“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” opened Tuesday night at Eisenhower Auditorium. Photo provided

Carole King’s hits and inspiring story arrived at Penn State’s Eisenhower Auditorium on Tuesday, the opening night of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical.”

The show opens simply, with King, played by the talented Sarah Bockel, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, although we’re immediately told we’re an audience in quite a different location — New York City. With a few notes of the piano, we’re whisked away to an earlier time in King’s life, scenes during which Bockel manages to pull off the naiveté and hope of a teenage girl just as easily and convincingly as she does the wisdom of a much older woman later in the production.

Over two and a half hours, audiences are treated to a vibrant retelling of one of the golden ages of American entertainment, as we follow King’s career, from selling her first song to the delightfully and consistently humorous Don Kirshner, played by James Clow, to recording her first album and moving from the world of behind-the-scenes songwriter to in-the-spotlight, Grammy Award-winning star.

This narrative line has been compared to widely popular musical “Jersey Boys,” but it’s worth pointing out a vital difference between the two productions, which heavily influences the audience’s experience, possibly to the point of rendering the two shows, in fact, incomparable — Carole King is, of course, a woman.

The Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State’s season theme is “I am Woman,” and “Beautiful” fits right into this theme with ease. There is the female lead, accompanied by other strong female characters, breaking her way into a male-dominated industry, all while focusing her worth on her talents and smarts, versus her looks. In fact, the script seems to go out of its way to portray King as “not as pretty” and “square.” There’s romance, but it’s hardly the main plot, and, at the end of the day, it’s King’s music and career that’s always been her true love.

Beyond the stirring narrative of female empowerment, “Beautiful” could easily stand on its musical numbers alone. The nearly countless song list in the first act features hits by not only King and Gerry Goffin, but also the songwriting duo’s contemporaries and best friends, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (Jacob Heimer as the former easily provided the most laughs of the evening and Alison Whitehurst as the latter nicely complements the female-driven narrative with her character’s progressive views on marriage and career).

On the show’s opening night at Eisenhower Auditorium, the demographic leaned heavily toward an age set that likely heard many of the tunes throughout when they first hit the airwaves, but the younger theatergoers of Centre County will easily recognize a handful of the hits that helped lay the foundation for today’s pop scene, as well as possibly pick up a few new favorites.

Even songs that some might not enjoy on their own, find new meaning within the context of the musical, such as “One Fine Day,” which tugs on more than a few heartstrings as it’s interjected with key moments in the degradation of King’s marriage, as she plays humble and faithful-to-a-fault wife to Dylan S. Wallach’s egotistical and disturbed Goffin. Unfortunately, the show does a less than perfect job exploring the character’s struggle with mental illness, but there’s only so many themes one can fit into a musical.

The production ends where it begins — with King at her piano, performing in front of a New York City audience at Carnegie Hall. However, there’s a key difference. At this point, we’ve now watched King transform from preciously naïve teenager to a complex woman who’s overcome difficulties of both the professional and personal manner, but somehow remained unhardened and untarnished despite it. It is, as the show’s title song will attest, quite beautiful.

“Beautiful” runs through Sunday at Eisenhower Auditorium. For more information, visit cpa.psu.edu.