Carole King musical is a tapestry of nostalgic sights and sounds

Julia Knitel as Carole King in the Broadway in Columbus/CAPA presentation of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Pop memories mix with Broadway pizzazz in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The titular singer-songwriter won multiple Grammys in 1971 with Tapestry, an album that voiced the joys, fears and regrets of an entire generation. Beautiful, a jukebox musical written by Douglas McGrath, explains how King became the person who created the iconic work.

The journey begins when King (winningly played by Julia Knitel) is a precocious 16-year-old who’s determined to forge a career writing pop songs. Despite multiple rejections, she persuades her mom (Alaina Mills) to let her try one more time by taking her latest tune to a recording studio on Times Square.

There she meets two men who will play crucial roles in her career: record producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), who is won over by her pop lament It Might as Well Rain Until September; and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), a lyricist who quickly becomes her partner in music and in life.

In most jukebox musicals, the plot exists only to tie together a slew of popular songs. In Beautiful, the plot exists to explain how those songs came to be. Because King’s tunes have so much emotional resonance for those who grew up with them, the story has built-in appeal. We want to know what turned this nerdy, self-effacing teen into the older but wiser, sadder but stronger talent who poured her aching heart out in Tapestry.

In the touring show, that appeal helps to make up for a central relationship that seems iffy from the start because Tobin’s Goffin comes across as someone who is as self-absorbed as he is brilliant. King may think he’s worth the effort, but viewers are apt to be less convinced.

Gathered around the piano (from left): Curt Bouril as Don Kirshner, Liam Tobin as Gerry Goffin, Julia Knitel as Carole King, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann and Erika Olson as Cynthia Weil

Oddly, it’s easier to root for another songwriting couple who become friendly competitors to King and Goffin. Lyricist Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) is sassy and sarcastic, while composer Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) is a lovable hypochondriac. The two create both laughs and romantic sparks whenever they’re onstage.

Under Marc Bruni’s direction, the show flows smoothly and efficiently from one scene or song to the next. Derek McLane’s scenery, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Alejo Vietti’s costumes combine to create stage pictures that are both glitzy and elegant. The production numbers are particularly gorgeous and benefit from Josh Prince’s choreography, which often parodies moves favored by early groups such as the Shirelles and the Drifters (both of which make guest “appearances”).

My personal favorite among the production numbers: the Drifters’ rendition of On Broadway, one of the Weil-Mann hits. But there are many other musical moments, both big and intimate, that will tempt viewers to sing along. (But don’t, please—you’ll get your chance during the curtain call.)

My only musical complaint is that Knitel sometimes strays from the well-known King melodies, as if trying to make them her own. Since she’s playing King, she really ought to stick to the original notes. Overall, though, she vocalizes beautifully, often capturing the singer’s timbre without doing an outright impersonation. The rest of the cast sings equally well and is expertly backed up by conductor Susan Draus and her band.

Beautiful may not hit as many emotional moments as it could, but it lives up to its name both visually and aurally while delivering a nutritious serving of nostalgia.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through Sunday (June 11) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$246. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

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Ridiculous plot is only an excuse to sing ’80s rock tunes

Drew (John Boyd), Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) and Dennis Dupree (Brandon Anderson) hold forth in Shadowbox Live’s Rock of Ages (Photos by Tommy Feisel)

By Richard Ades

Jukebox musicals are a pretty silly invention, and Rock of Ages is sillier than most. Faced with the task of building a plot around popular rock tunes from the 1980s, book writer Chris D’Arienzo came up with a doozy:

A father-and-son team of German developers (Tom Cardinal and Billy DePetro) want to bulldoze Hollywood’s Sunset Strip and evict the rock fans who live and work there. Why? Presumably, to make money with a redevelopment scheme, but we all know the real reason is to give the cast an excuse to sing Starship’s We Built This City (on rock ’n’ roll) and a host of other ’80s classics.

Franz (Billy DePetro, left) watches as his father, Hertz (Tom Cardinal), persuades the mayor (Nikkii Davis) to back a plan to bulldoze Sunset Strip.

The plot is so ridiculous that the musical doesn’t even pretend to be anything but what it is: a musical. In the first few minutes, narrator and “sound god” Lonny (Guillermo Jemmott) admits he’s adding a romance to the proceedings simply because musicals have to have a romance.

We then meet would-be rock star Drew (John Boyd), who quickly falls in love with would-be movie star Sherrie (Amy Lay), just arrived from Kansas. Following the usual pattern, their relationship undergoes a series of hiccups and misunderstandings that keeps them apart until—well, until a host of other ’80s songs have been sung and danced to.

When I first saw Rock of Ages in 2010, I was able to embrace its silliness thanks to the touring show’s sweetly sincere portrayal of Drew and to outrageous costume designs that were like an oversexed version of what folks really wore during the Reagan decade. Shadowbox’s production, directed by Julie Klein, is only slightly more restrained on the style side, and Boyd is appealingly sincere as Drew. He also sings very well.

Drew (John Boyd) falls in love with Sherrie (Amy Lay) because, well, someone has to fall in love or it wouldn’t be a musical.

Most of the other cast members are equally in tune, musically and otherwise. Besides those already mentioned, they include Brandon Anderson as club owner Dennis Dupree, Jamie Barrow as sleazy rock star Stacee Jaxx, Ashley Pearce as protest leader Regina, Eryn Reynolds as talent agent Ja’Keith, Nikki Davis as the corrupt mayor and Noelle Anderson (alternating with Stacie Boord) as gentlemen’s club owner Justice.

Speaking of the gentlemen’s club, Lay’s Sherrie is amusingly inept when she takes a job there and tries her hand at pole dancing. Overall, though, I wish she came across as less of a shallow hick, which makes it even harder than it otherwise would be to care about whether she and Drew hook up.

To pick another nit, I wish DePetro’s Franz were a bit less, um, swishy. I realize the portrayal is meant to set up a joke about effeminate German mannerisms (presumably the kind Craig Ferguson used to spoof to excess on The Late Late Show), but DePetro overshoots the mark. (German mark? Get it? Never mind.)

Back to the good stuff: Accompanied by a boisterous five-piece band, the cast rocks out on vintage classics like Any Way You Want It, Don’t Stop Believin’, The Final Countdown, Hit Me With Your Best Shot, Just Like Paradise and many others. Even though the plot is reasonably entertaining, especially during Act 2, cover songs like these are the real reason for buying a ticket.

In a jukebox musical, that’s as it should be.

Rock of Ages continues through Aug. 27 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times: 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.