Review: Stage West mounts Beautiful rendition of Carole King's tumultuous life

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Stage West’s production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is some kind of wonderful.

Beautiful is a jukebox musical that tells the story of the early years of King’s career and personal life using songs she wrote with her husband Gerry Goffin, plus songs their best friends, and fiercest competitors, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, wrote in the 1960s.

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The 15 years that the musical covers proved tumultuous for both couples, relationship-wise and career-wise because fame came to them when they were all in their late teens. Carole and Gerry wrote songs like Some Kind of Wonderful and Up on the Roof for the Drifters, while Barry and Cynthia would give The Drifters a hit with On Broadway. Carole and Gerry would score major successes with Take Good Care of My Baby for Bobby Vee, Will You Love Me Tomorrow for The Shirelles, and One Fine Day for The Chiffons, while Barry and Cynthia would give The Animals a hit with We Gotta Get Out of this Place, and The Righteous Brothers the mega-hit You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin.

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Douglas McGrath, who created Beautiful, suggests the lyrics in these hit songs were deeply personal, and that is what director Dayna Tekatch and her talented artists in the Stage West production make abundantly clear.

Kaylee Harwood as Carole King in Stage West’s Beautiful. Photo, Lee Siegel photography. cal

When Kaylee Howard sings One Fine Day, she bleeds pathos and pain from the lyrics ‘You’ll want the love you threw away before’ because the philandering Goffin told King he wanted to sleep with Janelle Woods, the lead singer of The Chiffons. Gone is that doo-woppy feel of the hit version.

Sayer Roberts as Goffin does the same with Up on the Roof, the song Goffin wrote to express how he would escape from his difficult home life. The grittiness he brings to the song is lost when The Drifters sing it, but that’s the magic in Tekatch’s production. The great singers who bring The Drifters, Shirelles and Chiffons to life give us the nostalgic hit parade versions of the songs, but Howard and Roberts give us the heart and soul. It helps immensely that Stage West is an intimate venue because we feel we are right there in the room with these characters and the actors bringing them to life.

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Stage West
Alex Gullakson, Billy Lake, Sayer Roberts and Kaylee Harwood in Stage West’s Beautiful. Photo, Lee Siegel Photography cal

As Mann and Weil, Billy Lake and Alex Gullason get to have more fun with that couple’s collaborations as we see when they write You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’. Barry mocks Cynthia’s lyrics because she repeats the word baby so much, and uses whoa-oh, only to have Andrew McGillvray and Alex Wierzbiciki, as The Righteous Brothers, send those lyrics soaring, showing why this song has been called the ultimate pop record.

Initially, Harwood brings such a feeling of youth, optimism and joy to her King that it’s painful to watch all that get chipped away by Goffin’s infidelity, depression and ego. Instead of being excited when The Monkees want to record Pleasant Valley Sunday, he throws a tantrum and rushes off to his latest mistress. He was a man who wanted to be a playwright, not a lyricist, though his lyrics are still praised today.

When King finally starts recording her own songs for the Tapestry album, Harwood shows a much more mature, centred artist, and a much happier, fulfilled one. It’s a beautifully, and carefully fleshed-out performance, illustrating what King meant when she wrote and sang You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman.

Tekatch makes sure the stage is a whirl of activity between each of the dialogue scenes and musical numbers as the actors, completely in character, move set pieces to change locales.

Choreographer Ken Overbey turns The Locomotion, the song King and Goffin wrote for Little Eva, into a huge, splashy fun production number, and gives the performers all those classic moves that defined groups like The Drifters and The Shirelles.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is indeed a beautiful way to spend an evening, and it runs at Stage West until June 23.

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