Jan. 11 2017 11:53 AM

Carole King musical will make you feel like a natural person

Behind every great song is a great songwriter. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” highlights one such songwriter and the inspiring true story of her successful transition from anonymity to stardom.

In terms of story, “Beautiful” is a formulaic bio-musical in the mold of “Jersey Boys,” complete with personal drama and lucky breaks. But the rich characters and timeless music are precisely calibrated for maximum feel-good vibes.

The book by Douglas McGrath tracks the beginning of King’s songwriting career, from a precocious 16-year-old co-writing songs for pop groups to the recording of King’s breakout hit album, “Tapestry.” The plethora of songs — particularly in the first act – serve to carry the story but also demonstrate the caliber and quantity of King’s songwriting output.

Julia Knitel stars as King, combining an affable nerdiness and quiet courage in her thin frame. Far from imitation, Knitel channel’s King’s spirit, from her somewhat mousy demeanor to her strong, folksy singing voice layered with a lifetime of pain and joy. Her voice reaches to the back of the auditorium, particularly when embracing King’s solo songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”.

King’s writing partner and first husband, Gerry Goffin, is played by Liam Tobin with power and grace. Tobin and Knitel both complete and disarm each other, particularly at the beginning when Goffin underestimates King’s potential.

Knitel and Tobin are supported by Ben Fankhauser and Erika Olson as the songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, respectively. Weil’s Broadway diva spirit and Mann’s neurotic Jewishness could be broad caricatures, but Fankhauser and Olson make their roles fully fleshed characters.

The show’s first act revolves around King, Goffin, Mann and Weil racing each other to write hit songs for music producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), who turns them into hits with the help of pop groups like the Shirelles, the Drifters and the Righteous Brothers. There are too many ensemble actors to name, suffice to say these music performances are a definite highlight. Dressed in shimmering dresses and suits from costume designer Alejo Vietti with slick, evocative dance moves from choreographer Josh Prince, the ensemble cast turns the theater into a time machine — all framed by scenic designer Derek McLane’s mid-century modern set — with powerful voices to match.

As much as “Beautiful” is a jukebox musical, it’s a showcase for King’s writing prowess. One of the best scenes is a performance of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” Before the Shirelles convert the song into the sha-na-na doo-wop classic, King (Knitel) performs it as a slow piano ballad. Sung in King’s distinct, nasal Brooklyn voice, you start to see the genius behind the curtain.

If “Beautiful” was just a sing-a-long musical minus the story, it would still sell tickets. The first act alone is an avalanche of feel good hits such as “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” But the story and setup for each song — mixed with lots of humor — hits the right chord in your heart, making the show resonate as much as King’s songs. “Beautiful” might just make the earth move under your feet.

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"
7:30 p.m. Wednesday; Jan 11-Thursday, Jan. 12;
8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 13;
2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 14;
1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15
Tickets start at $41
Wharton Center
750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 432-2000