In an early scene in Beautiful, struggling songwriter and 16 year-old college student Carole King meets handsome fellow student Gerry Goffin, who aspires to become a playwright. Dismissing her suggestion to collaborate by writing lyrics for pop songs, he asks, "What can you say in three minutes?"
The same question could be posed, "How can you fit the life and career of one of the most prolific and successful female songwriters of the twentieth century into a 2 1/2 hour musical?" The answer is you can't. Instead, the touring production of Beautiful, on stage in Overture Hall through June 18, tells a compelling but simplified story of Carole King's evolution from an awkward teenage composer in Brooklyn in 1958, to a poised, accomplished singer/songwriter playing a triumphant solo concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971. The fast-paced, funny, and polished production showcases a very strong cast juxtaposing exuberant love songs with King's turbulent personal life as she rose to fame.
In addition to the King biography, Beautiful also crams the history of 1960s rock 'n' roll into the show in 28 songs, from dance craze hits like "The Locomotion," to the rise of girl groups such as The Shirelles and R&B groups like The Drifters. As the decade closes, the characters reflect on the innovative, evolving sounds of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and how those artists will inevitably change the music industry.
Most of the songs featured in Beautiful bounce back and forth between Billboard hits by King and her creative partner/husband Gerry Goffin, and those by another romantically connected composing team, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Both friends and rivals coming up at Don Kirshner's Dimension Records at the same time, their competition to write the next number one hit provides nice tension throughout the play. Some songs are presented in process, as the writers gather around the piano and pitch their latest tunes to management. Some are performed by the groups that made the songs famous, including the intricately choreographed and beautifully harmonized "On Broadway," "Up on the Roof," and "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"
As the main character, Julia Knitel is pitch perfect. Both self-effacing and self-conscious around the impossibly handsome Gerry, she is also passionate and determined when it comes to songwriting, bouncing with joy when her first song gets to number one on the charts. Knitel pours herself into King's journey from giddy naivete to heartbreak to renewed resolve. It is a lovely transformation. Vocally she channels King with a clear, lyrical soprano, whether she is musing over a refrain or singing to shake the rafters in "You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman."
As her troubled husband Gerry, Liam Tobin is also extraordinary. His full, rich voice adds to his character's swagger and betrays his mounting frustration as the play unfolds. Tobin is menacing as he gradually allows restlessness to turn to rage, while Gerry's depression and self-doubt sabatoge his work and his relationships.
Erika Olson and Ben Fankhauser are equally strong as the quirky and talented Cynthia Weil and the goofy hypochondriac Barry Mann. Perfect foils for the main couple, the pair excels at both comic timing and musical prowess.
Perhaps most impressive is the deep bench of the twenty supporting cast members that populate the world of Beautiful. Playing multiple roles, each basks in the spotlight as they sing and dance their way through the catalogue of hit songs.
An added slice of history, Beautiful also mirrors the arc of the burgeoning women's movement with several female characters questioning their roles in relation to men. As the 1970s begin, King files for divorce, asserting her independence at the same time she literally finds her voice and begins to record her own songs.
Swinging her wavy blonde hair across the keyboard as she pounded out the piano accompaniment to "Beautiful" in the show's final scene Knitel received the same rousing ovation from the Overture Center audience as one imagines King enjoyed at Carnegie Hall, more than four decades ago.