Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays at the Kennedy Center to Jan. 2. Credit: Joan Marcus

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Nostalgia has a bad rap. As far as emotions go, it’s a pretty sticky one, filled with privilege and politics: Who gets to romanticize the past? Why waste time looking backwards when the future—and the present—demand our attention? Can we trust nostalgia, when our memories are so tainted by time, hindsight, and a complicated web of neural pathways most of us will never fully understand?

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical traces the life of esteemed singer-songwriter Carole King, played by a glowing and earnest Sara Sheperd, from the time she sells her first hit, “It Might As Well Rain Until September” (at an envy-inducing young age, no less), through the recording of her first solo album, the Grammy Award-winning Tapestry. Along the way, she falls in love with the slickly charming yet tortured lyricist, Gerry Goffin (James D. Gish) who asks, in one of his winning opening lines, how much can really be said in three minutes of radio airspace set to instrumentals. (The often funny, always witty book was written by Douglas McGrath, the mind behind the 1996 film Emma.) Spurred by an unexpected pregnancy, King and Goffin build a life together around music, writing and arranging the pop songs that would come to define love—and set the love song standard—for generations.

But it’s the relationship with the couple’s friends Cynthia Weil (Sara King) and Barry Mann (Ryan Farnsworth) that really brings the glitter. Onstage, and in real life, the two sets of partners-in-music-and-love share a friendship predicated on competitive instincts, mutual respect, and genuine affection. Together they pushed each other personally and sonically, resulting in hits like “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “On Broadway,” and “Up on the Roof.” 

Though not a cookie-cutter jukebox musical, a quick critic might deem Beautiful nothing more than a glory-full biography mixed with a twist of nostalgia. And, yes, the musical, which returns to the Kennedy Center after making its Broadway debut in 2014, is plenty warm-and-fuzzy. Even the set is oozing with a color scheme of cinnamon biscuits and walnut brandy, the ochre-and-nut palette of the 1960s. Though excitable, the play is mostly orderly, just like the production’s frequent motifs of filing cabinets and wildflowers.

Against this cozy backdrop, the ensemble cast shines. Watching King’s babysitter-turned-pop-sensation Little Eva (Jamary A. Gil) rock out to “The Locomotion,” which Goffin feared would be too juvenile, is happiness encapsulated—the entire ensemble snakes around the set with the enthusiasm normally reserved for recess. You can’t help but wish you could hop onstage, bringing up the rear and pumping your fist like a steam engine alongside them. 

The infectious “1650 Broadway Medley,” a mash-up of the sounds from the era, spanning “Yakety Yak,” to “Love Potion No. 9,” is also joyously performed by the ensemble. Audiences greeted appearances by The Drifters (Isaiah Bailey, Edwin Bates, Torrey Linder, Julian Malone), The Righteous Brothers (Nick Moulton, Paul Scanlan), and The Shirelles (Gil, Rosharra Francis, Danielle Herbert, Sarah Signman) with giggles and cheers. 

While the play surely renders a much glossier, speedier version of real life events—even the arrangement of hits feels a bit snappier—McGrath focuses on the music and the relationships, not the decades through which the play travels. It’s hardly a dramatization of real events, it’s more like a distilled, shimmering version. The play moves swiftly, filled with upward mobility as the hits get juicier and the costumes glitzier. It’s a delight to disappear into well-worn hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and countless others, revving up to an apotheosis as a self-realized King belts “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.” 

The songs interwoven through the scenes—nay, in this play, it might be better said the other way around—highlight the nuances and complications of love and loss, providing us with a vocabulary for emotions we struggle to communicate or understand. How beautifully complicated King’s love is.

In a winter of a continuing pandemic, escapes are hard to come by—and when they do come around, choosing joy can feel like it’ll land you on the naughty list. Much like finishing a great TV show, leaving the theater after 2.5 hours of somatic bliss induces a certain sense of deflation.

As the play details, King gives herself over to joy, feeling everything fully, even when struck by heartbreak. “What’s so funny about life is, sometimes, it goes the way you want,” King says. “And when it doesn’t, you find something beautiful.” Every difficult emotion, every little soulful happening, inspires a new jingle. Rare is a scene without an upstanding piano. The message is clear: Live a life of feeling, knowing every emotion is worthy of song, because, despite what Goffin says, you can say quite a lot in 3 minutes. 

Watching the cast of Beautiful perform with such untethered joy has me wishing I could write lyrics to help process the world offstage. And judging by the man beside me who hummed along to the entire play, tapping his foot to the beat, I’m not the only one. Maybe, rather than cajoling us into the past, nostalgia can encourage us to investigate our presents—or at least live them in full.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, book by Douglas McGrath with direction by Marc Bruni and choreography by Josh Prince, plays through Jan. 2 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. kennedy-center.org. $49–$159. COVID vaccine and masks required.