“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” opens Tuesday, Jan. 24 and runs through Jan. 29 at the Hippodrome Theatre. (Courtesy video)
Take a much-loved pop culture figure; focus on her path to the top, with its personal joys and setbacks along the way; weave hit songs throughout this backstory — and you've got a friendly musical.
The nostalgia-fueled locomotion known as "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," which opened three years ago on Broadway, has reached Baltimore with a touring production that delivers an impressive package of stylish acting and singing at the Hippodrome Theatre.
As jukebox musicals go, this one has the advantage of not turning reverential while telling a genuinely interesting backstory about an artist whose songs helped many a current AARP member get through some turbulent times. It's an engaging look at what was going on well before King's breakout 1971 solo album, "Tapestry," the time when she had a hand in turning out many a hit for others.
The accomplished screenwriter Douglas McGrath — he and Woody Allen shared an Academy Award nomination for "Bullets Over Broadway" — fashioned an effective book for "Beautiful." It's deftly balanced between essential biographical material (some details may be obscured or air-brushed, but nothing that would qualify as alternative facts) and pure, straightforward entertainment.
A hefty quotient of dry humor, including one-liners that would be at home on "Modern Family," fuels the musical, popping up just when things verge toward sentimentality.
The overall crispness in the material redeems even the hokiest moments, as when King's big step to sing in public is immediately prefaced by her saying she can't think of anyone who could sing her new songs (that kind of set-up was old in the 1930s).
"Beautiful" is structured like records in an old jukebox — each scene seems to last just about three minutes. The result is a pace that swirls from the get-go and never lets up, guided smoothly by director Marc Bruni and aided by Derek McLane's sleekly efficient set design.
Obviously, none of this would add up to a worthwhile two-and-a-half hours of musical theater without actors who can show the audience all the love in their hearts. The touring cast demonstrates that knack.
Julia Knitel steps into the role of King with great assurance and nuance. You believe instantly in her portrayal of the half-confident, half-shy 16-year-old Brooklyn girl trying to sell her first song, or trying to catch the attention of a hunky college student by using a sudden flourish at the keyboard (not many teens can turn a guy's head with a dash through Bach's D minor Invention).
Just as important, you believe Knitel's conjuring of the more mature King, a woman scarred by a failed marriage but determined to make a fresh start. The actress reveals a real flair for deadpan delivery of funny rejoinders and asides and, above all, a sense of King's growing self-worth.
Knitel does not evoke the plaintive, slightly grainy side of King's singing, but imitation isn't the point here. And if, in the most emotional songs, the belting doesn't come effortlessly, the expressive weight of Knitel's singing carries her along. She clearly owns the role, and it feels good to watch her shine in it.
As Gerry Goffin, the man who makes King feel like a natural woman — a little too prematurely, as it turns out — and pens terrific lyrics spot-on for her melodies, Andrew Brewer likewise does convincing work. He is adept at conveying Goffin's charm and eventual emotional unraveling (even as the musical glosses over the causes).
As fellow talented songwriters who fall in love and manage to overcome their relationship problems, Ben Fankhauser makes a terrific, hypochondriacal Barry Mann and Erika Olson proves equally appealing as the wise Cynthia Weil.
Backed by a tight band in the pit, the production also features Suzanne Grodner in a colorful performance as King's advice-ready mother; Curt Bouril as crafty record producer Don Kirshner; and an ensemble that can jump into any number of assignments, among them vibrantly impersonating some of the pop artists who benefited greatly from the rich tapestry of King's early years.