‘Beautiful’ at the Kennedy Center tells the tale of Carole King’s rise to stardom

‘Beautiful’ at the Kennedy Center tells the tale of Carole King’s rise to stardom

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Joan Marcus)

Where were you when you first heard The Righteous Brothers sing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” or “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles? Maybe you were dancing to “Locomotion” by Little Eva or “Up On the Roof” by The Drifters, all songs written by Brooklyn-born Carole King (Abby Mueller) and her husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin).

Working for music producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), known as “The Man With the Golden Ear,” their partnership, which is the subject of the latest touring production at the Kennedy Center, produced hit after hit, keeping them on the pop charts throughout the 1960s.

During their early career, lyricist Gerry and the precociously talented composer Carole churned out hits at Aldon Music, a music-publishing house and hit factory in New York’s Brill Building, where they worked side by side with fellow hit makers Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) in friendly competition.

“Beautiful” tells the story of their romance, marriage and tumultuous breakup. The simple story chronicles their struggles and successes and ultimately King’s solo career, which broke the pop mold with the release of her first album — the four-time Grammy Award-winning “Tapestry.”

The show opens with a medley of hits from the 1950s before the duo got their start — “Poison Ivy,” “Love Potion No. 9” and “Yakety Yak,” to name a few. Dressed in sharkskin suits and skinny ties, actors playing The Drifters appear to perform some of their numbers, as do The Shirelles, wearing their trademark beaded dresses with chiffon shoulder drapes, Little Eva (Ashley Blanchet), who had been their babysitter, and the fictitious Janelle Woods (Rebecca E. Covington), a pop singer who becomes Gerry’s extramarital lover.

The musical is heavy on songs — 27 numbers backed by a 12-piece orchestra — and light on script. But that’s just fine, as you’ll probably be silently singing along recalling your first dance or first kiss to these memorable songs that are timed to reflect the state of Carole and Gerry’s rocky marriage. Goosebumps kick in with “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Gerry and Carole’s first duet, and the audience gives a collective — and audible — sigh for The Righteous Brothers big number, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Scenic designer Derek McLane captures the mood by drawing on the 1930s architecture of the historic Brill Building, tricking it out with hundreds of neon-colored lights. Spare sets feature the mid-century modern furnishings of the period, while “On Air” signs suggest the atmosphere of a sound studio. Abby Mueller does a fine job as Carole, especially at the end of Act Two when she lets loose her powerful voice on the biggest hits from “Tapestry,” “Natural Woman,” later covered by Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, and “Beautiful,” a reflection of her coming of age as an independent composer and soloist.

See it if you love the music of this era, or even if you just like music with lyrics you can understand.