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Theater Preview: Broadway Musical "Beautiful" Explores the Rise of the Groundbreaking Carole King

April 25-30 at the Altria Theatre



If you grew up in the ’70s, you know Carole King tunes.

The New Yorker was a legendary songwriter who gained notice penning hits for others with ex-husband Gerry Goffin. In the wake of her split from him, King rose to solo stardom with her immensely popular 1971 album, “Tapestry.”

The album went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 15 weeks and remained on the list for much of the decade. Filled with classics such as “It’s Too Late / I Feel the Earth Move,” “So Far Away” and “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman),” it helped define a generation just as feminism was gaining a foothold, selling more than 25 million copies.

All this makes the coming-of-age story of the young Brooklyn native — real name, Carol Klein — perfect fodder for the wave of jukebox musicals finding success on Broadway, such as “Jersey Boys,” “Dreamgirls” and “Motown.”

The formula is simple: Tell an underdog story punctuated by sing-a-long favorites that keep audiences waiting for the next nostalgic rush. So perhaps it isn’t a surprise that “Beautiful: the Carole King Musical” has been a smash on Broadway since opening at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre in January 2014.

Based on a book by Douglas McGrath, the production focuses on the personal and professional lives of two competitive songwriting teams in the legendary Brill Building: King and Goffin, and their close friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the latter known for such hits as “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “Walking in the Rain.”

In the touring production, Weil is played by Erika Olson, a 22-year-old in her first job since graduating from Carnegie Mellon University.

“Back in the mid-’50s when this was going on, it wasn’t usual for two women to be at the forefront of their careers, pumping out all these songs,” Olson says. “Carole was juggling two kids and a divorce. Them being such strong, powerful, go-getter women in a time when it was difficult to be one, really drew me to the role.”

The show follows King’s life from when she was 16, selling her first song to Don Kirshner in Times Square, and then writing hits for acts such as the Drifters and the Shirelles before working up the nerve to launch her own career.

“They all had a beautiful, healthy competition and friendship,” Olson says, noting that the songwriting teams went on vacations together, if only to make sure that neither couple was working when the other was off.

“Their offices were right next to each other, sharing a wall,” Olson says. “There was definitely a sense of who’s going to get the song out first? But it just made their friendships stronger. And they’re all still friends to this day [though Goffin died a few months after the show opened].”

Weil and Mann are still married after 50 years together, Olson says, adding that it wasn’t difficult to flesh out the character because of the strong book and libretto.

“What separates our show from other jukebox musicals is that normally the big musical numbers are strung together through a made-up story,” she explains. “This is an actual story where the songs come in to further the plot along, because that’s what was happening in real life.”

In Richmond, King will be played by Julia Knitel, an understudy of actress Jessie Mueller who received rave reviews for her complex performance on Broadway.

So has Olson noticed any transformation in audience members who bring their lived-in memories of the songs?

“That’s so interesting, we do. That’s one of the biggest discoveries of people in the cast. There’s such a sense of nostalgia. … I think what changes is just the respect for these writers, and especially Carole King, because she really pushed boundaries. She wrote these deceptively simple lyrics that were universally accepted and understood. People weren’t normally aware of all the hardships she was going through behind the scenes. That’s the biggest surprise.”

Although Olson says she’s yet to meet Weil, King came to see the show a few months ago.

“Man, she was so humble and gracious and blown away that we’re putting on her show every night,” she recalls. “It’s a hard part of her life to relive, so she gets very moved by it.”

It might be too nerve-wracking to have Weil in the audience, she adds.

“I’m not sure I’d want to know until after,” Olson says, laughing. “But tears were running down Carole’s face when she was talking about their friendship to me. It was really lovely.” S

Broadway in Richmond presents “Beautiful — the Carol King Musical” from April 25-30 at the Altria Theatre, with matinees Saturday and Sunday. Tickets from $43.


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