'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical': Theater Review
Stephen Sondheim Theatre (runs indefinitely)
Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, Jeb Brown, Liz Larsen
Jessie Mueller plays the singer-songwriter who stepped out in the early '70s from behind the scenes to become one of the signature female voices of that decade.
When the kitschy musical about the record producer behind the Shirelles, Baby It’s You, showed up briefly on Broadway in 2011, that 1960s girl group’s No. 1 breakthrough hit, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” was conspicuously absent. Turns out withholding the song rights for the far superior Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was a prescient move. Following in the footsteps of crowd-pleasers like Jersey Boys and Motown: The Musical, this is entertaining boomer bait that elevates its by-the-numbers narrative with great songs. It’s also a tremendous showcase for the talented Jessie Mueller as she embodies King’s blossoming from songwriter-for-hire to empowered performer of her own material.
Perhaps the savviest choice of the book by Douglas McGrath (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway) was to minimize the focus on King’s consecration as the epitome of the mellow Laurel Canyon sound. Her gajillion-selling 1971 album, “Tapestry,” becomes almost an epilogue. Durable as those songs are – and the evergreens are all given spirited interpretations by Mueller and her fellow cast – the triumph is less interesting than the bumpy road of self-discovery that got King there. Even if McGrath’s account of it remains fairly sanitized.
Shows constructed around the back catalogues of an artist or an era almost invariably give perfunctory treatment to character development and relationships, serving merely to connect the dots between hit songs. McGrath, director Marc Bruni and the appealing performers don’t exactly break that mold by going for complexity. But while keeping things light and breezy, they have populated Beautiful with well-defined characters with relatable human foibles.
At the center is King, a Jewish self-described square from Brooklyn, whose mother (Liz Larsen, doing her best with a crusty stereotype) urged her to forget songwriting and take up a viable career: “Girls don’t write music. They teach it!” Alongside her is Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), the volatile lyricist she married at age 17 in 1959. The husband-and-wife songwriters set up shop at 1650 Broadway in the employ of Aldon Music’s Don Kirschner (Jeb Brown), cranking out a formidable string of hits for artists including the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Monkees and Aretha Franklin. But the show broadens its emotional arc by flanking the central couple with another celebrated songwriting team from the Kirschner stable, Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen). Their constant friendship and good-natured professional rivalry makes them likable comic sidekicks.
Not incidentally, the second couple’s inclusion also expands the song list to make room for a whole other crop of ‘60s pop nuggets, among them “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “On Broadway,” “Walking in the Rain,” “Uptown” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”
The show starts with King centerstage at the piano in an earth-mother schmatta with a head of untamed frizz, doing “So Far Away” at her 1971 Carnegie Hall concert. It then backtracks to recap her life leading up to that moment. The central conflict is Carole’s longing for a fulfilling marriage and family life, and the increasing impossibility of maintaining that with the personally and professionally restless Gerry, whose manic-depressive disorder is illustrated without being spelled out. Songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “It’s Too Late,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” are deployed in ways both obvious and skillful to mark key points in the relationship or its wake. Even the potentially saccharine “You’ve Got a Friend” finds a snug fit.
Derek McLane’s clever set uses graphic panels seemingly inspired by the amplifier fronts of vintage stereos, with a rear maze of instruments, recording equipment and offices that summons the idea of a literal music factory. As a chronicle of one of American pop’s golden eras, the show remains superficial, but Bruni’s polished staging briskly evokes the time and milieu with infectious energy. The performances by nattily attired stand-ins for the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers and others are a blast, capturing the silky dance moves and smooth backup vocals with style and wit. Josh Prince did the fun choreography, seen at its best when “The Locomotion” becomes a hit for Carole and Gerry’s babysitter, Little Eva.
McGrath’s book flirts openly (though not displeasingly) with sitcom dialogue, and by no means skirts the clichés and shortcuts of hackneyed behind-the-music chronicles. But the story, and perhaps more importantly, the characters, are never less than engaging. It also helps that, like Jersey Boys, the songs are mostly performance numbers, enhancing the storyline without requiring the effortful plot shoehorning of many jukebox musicals.
Epstein pulls off the toughest role, keeping philandering, unstable Gerry from becoming entirely unsympathetic, while Spector and the delightful Larsen add enormous warmth. Barry is a textbook neurotic who hankers after Cyn like a puppy, while she’s the picture of chic sophistication in Alejo Vietti’s costumes, susceptible to Barry’s nerdy charms but too protective of her own professional identity to risk becoming just a spousal adjunct. Brown also strikes a nice balance between Don’s managerial coolness and increasing affection for his hired hands.
The ace up the show’s sleeve, however, is Mueller’s lovely performance as King, full of self-effacing humor, emotional depth and understated vulnerability. She conveys the burgeoning singer-songwriter’s creative drive while wrestling quietly with her ingrained, old-fashioned sense of the expectations for a wife and mother. There’s a disarming yearning quality to her characterization that makes us root for Carole to spread her wings. And her vocals are superb, capturing King’s colloquial style while insinuating her own personality into songs that work like a time-travel machine for the musical’s target audience.
Venue: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, Jeb Brown, Liz Larsen, Ashley Blanchet, E. Clayton Cornelious, Josh Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Kevin Duda, James Harkness, Carly Hughes, Sara King, Rebecca LaChance, Douglas Lyons, Arbender J. Robinson, Rashidra Scott
Director: Marc Bruni
Book: Douglas McGrath
Music and lyrics: Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
Set designer: Derek McLane
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Orchestrations, vocal and music arrangements: Steve Sidwell
Music supervisor, additional music arrangements: Jason Howland
Choreographer: Josh Prince
Executive producers: Sherry Konder, Christine Russell
Presented by Paul Blake, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jeffrey A. Sine, Richard A. Smith, Mike Bosner, Harriet N. Leve/Elaine Krauss, Terry Schnuck, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker/Good Productions, Roger Faxon, Larry Magid, Kit Seidel, Lawrence S. Toppall, Fakston Production/Mary Solomon, William Court Cohen, John Gore, BarLor Productions, Matthew C. Blank, Tim Hogue, Joel Hyatt, Marianne Mills, Michael J. Moritz Jr., StylesFour Productions, Brunish & Trinchero, Jeremiah J. Harris