Early in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," a 16-year-old Carole King tells her doting, doubting mother that a good song makes her feel like she has a friend.
And the Tony Award-winning production -- showing through Jan. 8 at Detroit's Fisher Theatre -- makes the audience feel that way about its subject, who of course went on to write the pop hymn "You've Got A Friend."
Mostly buoyant and at times bleak, "Beautiful" nimbly takes us through 13 years of the amply decorated songwriter and performer's life, an eventful period filled with professional triumph and personal tumult, both with collaborator/boyfriend turned husband turned ex-husband Gerry Goffin. It's bracing but also enlightening to realize what King accomplished in such a sort time, a passel of enduring hits for others (the Drifters, the Chiffons, the Shirelles, Little Eva, the Monkees and more) first and then, starting in 1970, for herself.
It's the kind of story they make...well, musicals and movies about. The fact that it really happened only makes "Beautiful" -- done with King's full by-in and based partially on her "A Natural Woman: A Memoir" -- more resonant and a genuine celebration of her exceptional talent and fortitude..
Julia Knitel, filling formidable, award-winning shoes as King, is a solid and convincing lead, ably letting her portrayal take the character from a giggly, ambitious and inexperienced teen to a matured artist and woman -- the latter after betrayal and hard decisions. Knitel also has the pipes for the job, nailing key musical moments such as "It's Too Late" and the Aretha Franklin-popularized "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."
She doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting, however. Nobody in the cast goes for cheap, over-the-top New Yawker theatrics; A little reserve, in fact, suits the portrayals by Liam Tobin as the troubled Gerry Goffin, Ben Fankhauser as the comically neurotic Barry Mann and Erika Olson as his girlfriend and songwriting partner Cynthia Mann.
"Beautiful" is, appropriately, driven by cleverly staged musical production numbers, whether it's the young King's introduction to Don Kirshner's Manhattan songwriting factory -- a medley of period hits such as "Splish Splash," "Love Potion No. 9," "Poison Ivy" and more -- or depictions of the composing process for "Some Kind of Wonderful," "Up on the Roof" and "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling," transitioning from the writing room into their final recorded versions.
"One Fine Day" is turned into a heartbreaking first-act finale in which Goffin confesses his infidelity to King, who finished the song as Janelle Woods (Rebecca Covington) mimes it downstage. And "You've Got A Friend" is a three-hanky goodbye scene as King prepares to head for Los Angeles and fame with 1971's "Tapestry" album.
The musical ends triumphant, with King returning home to headline Carnegie Hall and the audience joining the cast in singing "I Feel The Earth Move." The true-life story went on from there, of course, but it's the perfect peak to finish with -- a truly "Beautiful" and uplifting moment.
"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"
Through Jan. 8.
The Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
Tickets are $44-$225.
Call 313-872-1000 or visit broadwayindetroit.com.
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