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"Beautiful" dramatizes Carole King's journey from high school to Carnegie Hall

Alyssa Garcia Bauer shines in jukebox musical dramatizing the rise of influential singer-songwriter Carole King.

/Grand Rapids Civic Theatre

Released in 1971, Carole King's "Tapestry" was the top-selling album for 15 weeks. It went on to sell over 14 million copies, earn four Grammys and lodge itself in the canon as a defining work of its era. How that came to be and what it meant is the subject of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," onstage at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre through June 30.

It begins when King was still Carole Klein (Alyssa Garcia Bauer), a bright Jewish girl living with her divorced mother. Sixteen years old, she's superficially typical of her time (the 1950s), from her hairstyle to her bobby socks and Mary Janes. But most 16-year-olds aren't college freshmen. Nor are they budding composers with ambitions of writing songs for teen idols. And these aren't idle ambitions. Soon she's at 1650 Broadway, the office of Don Kirshner (Morgan Foster), producer. She's written a song she thinks he'll like.

Before we can hear it, we're treated to "1650 Broadway Melody," a mashup of hits from the time: "Splish Splash," "Love Potion No. 9," "Yakety Yak," "There Goes My Baby" and more. It's high-energy fun, kinetic and shot through with nostalgia. King, granted her audience, sits at a piano and plays "It Might As Well Rain Until September." It's pretty, deceptively simple and quietly aching. Kirshner buys it on the spot.

She continues to write but finds that melodies come more easily than words. Luckily, she soon meets Gerry Goffin (Alex Weiss), a fellow student. He's a little pretentious—this does not make him unique among male college students—but he's talented, too. Together, they begin writing what will become some of the most iconic songs of the latter half of the 20th century, including "The Locomotion," "Up On The Roof," and, the cream of the crop, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Performances of these songs were generally good, but Alisha Brown as Little Eva ("The Locomotion") gave the best. She genuinely seems to enjoy herself onstage and so we do too.

Other strong performances include Emily Diener as Cynthia Weil and Joey Parks as Barry Mann, songwriting partners who become friends with King and Goffin. Seasoned pros, they bring humor and sincerity to their roles. But the real star is Garcia Bauer. She captures King in all her singularity: a down-to-earth woman whose melodies soared and a songwriter who explored ordinary feelings in extraordinary ways. If the pacing sometimes feels rushed, King's heady early days probably felt rushed too, making the quiet ease of her best work all the more stunning.

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