Playwright: Douglas McGrath ( book ); Jerry Goffin, Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ( words & music )
At: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St. Tickets: 800-775-2000; BroadwayInChicago.com; $30-$115. Runs through: Jan. 28
The Oriental Theatre is packing in the teenie and tweenie females for Wicked, but it's their grandmothers who are whoopin' and hollerin' two blocks away at the Cadillac Palace with the return of Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, a biography of the artist who has spent an astonishing 60 years in pop music. The audience base for Beautiful clearly has followed King for a lifetime, quite literally.
King's music is far from new, but it remains remarkably fresh, appealing and insouciant. In part, it's because King and her early writing partner, Jerry Goffin, wrote excellent songs with smart lyrics ( mostly Goffin's ) and clever tunes ( King's ) with a hook and sometimes unexpected modulations. Book writer Douglas McGrath has woven a storyKing's biographyin which the songs fit more tightly and appropriately than in most any other jukebox musical. As pleasingly familiar as they are, the songs seem to have been written for the specific characters and situations. Beautiful also celebrates rock's pre-Motown era when white producers and songwriters worked closely with early Black crossover artists, many of whom are portrayed in musical cameos. The show knowingly creates nostalgia for that seemingly-more-innocent period in pop culture.
King ( Sarah Bockel ) started early and fast: she was in college and a published songwriter at 16, pregnant and married by 18. Goffin, her golden writing partner, also was her husband for 10 years although he strayed and had substance abuse issues. Beautiful presents King as a trend-setting song stylist with very middle-class, frequently naive ideas about marriage and familyunable to see how Goffin felt personally and creatively confined.
With their break-up, King quite literally found her own voice as a performer and also broke free of her own creative limits. The moment when wise Jewish mama Klein ( the real family name ) tells Carole that she doesn't need a man for validation is the moment the audience shouts and claps its approval. Yeah, it's a woman's story, so I guess it does belong on the same street as Wicked.
It can't be coincidence that the show once again stars someone with Chicago street cred. ( We breed grit as well as talent here. ) Bockel doesn't make Beautiful quite as exciting as the first time around, with Chicago-bred Abbey Mueller ( from a well-known clan of actors ) in the lead, but it's not because Bockel lacks voice or ability; it's the absence of surprise in the show's straight-forward narrative. First-time viewers won't have that issue. Bockels supporting team is solid and charming down the line: hunky Brewer as Goffin, Sarah Goeke and Jacob Heimer as best buds ( and competing song-writers ) Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, James Clow as producer Don Kirshner and Suzanne Grodner as mama Genie Klein.