'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical': Theater Review
Abby Mueller takes over for her sister, 2014 Tony winner Jessie Mueller, as Carole King in the jukebox musical's touring company.
When Jessie Mueller accepted the 2014 Tony Award for her work in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, her final thanks went to the legendary pop star who was in the audience that night. But the best lead actress in a musical winner also thanked her big sister, Abby, who was “back there somewhere,” she said, squinting at the last row. Two years later, Abby Mueller has taken over the role in the show's first national tour, currently at the Pantages in Hollywood, lending a single-minded persistence to her portrayal of a determined young musician carving out a place for herself in a male-dominated business, as well as the sweet vulnerability of a young mother struggling to put family first even as it falls apart around her. She sings with the crisp clarity audiences expect from a Broadway production, if less of the raspy voice that her sister emulated so well and King fans remember.
Covering the early part of the singer’s career as a scrappy teenage composer working with lyricist-boyfriend Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), the story focuses on the struggle and the heartache that preceded the breakout success of King’s 1971 Grammy-winning solo album Tapestry, including the hits most associate with her today. When the curtain goes up on Derek McLane's versatile set, employing lattice screens and a column of vintage hi-fi speakers to evoke the era, King has already triumphed. She is at her piano, performing “So Far Away” before a sold-out Carnegie Hall audience.
The story quickly flashes back to the days when she was still 17-year-old Carole Klein, living with her divorced mother (Suzanne Grodner) in Brooklyn. Maternal warnings about the impenetrability of the music business and the inconstancy of matrimony fall on deaf ears as King sets out for a meeting with producer Don Kirshner (amusingly played on opening night by Curt Bouril, alternating with Andrew Brewer and Matt Faucher) at his Aldon Music offices in Times Square. Of course an anonymous kid from Brooklyn has only a narrow chance of wheedling an opportunity from a player like Kirshner, but Carole gets her shot anyway, composing on the side while she attends high school with dreamy Gerry, a rebel with a sensitive side and a proclivity for the arts.
The two produce such hits as “Some Kind of Wonderful,” gorgeously rendered by The Drifters, smooth as gossamer in costumer Alejo Vietti’s period-perfect suits with skinny ties. And soon the songwriters have their first hit with “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles, marking the first time an all-girl group went to No. 1 on the charts. While King-Goffin songs like “Up on the Roof,” “The Locomotion” (sung by their real-life babysitter, Little Eva) and “One Fine Day” receive effervescent stagings, the soundtrack is boosted by friendly rival songwriting duo Barry Mann (Ben Frankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), who contribute immortal tunes like the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and The Drifters’ “On Broadway.”
It’s easy to dismiss the jukebox musical subgenre as a not-so-clever way of separating baby boomers from their social security checks. But Beautiful enjoys an edge over many others in Douglas McGrath’s book, which avoids the usual dialogue interstitials designed to set up the next classic song. With marriage, success and two babies, all seems right with King’s life just as Goffin starts exhibiting signs of mental stress and infidelity. It’s a story that could easily slip into cliched melodrama but instead McGrath provides nuance, casting Goffin not as the villain but as an empathetic artist, prey to his own weaknesses.
Credit also is due Tobin, who embodies the role with swagger, warmth and intensity — and finally pathos. As conflicted as he is, he provides the show’s most compelling character opposite King, who puts her best foot forward in the face of adversity. She's a type that in the hands of a lesser writer might have come off as Pollyanna-ish, but it's impossible not to root for her here.
Although the likability of Beautiful can be partly attributed to McGrath’s incisive and efficient writing, it's Mueller, with her earthy humility and tireless determination, that makes the show work. Her Brooklyn accent serves as a constant reminder of her humble roots and her striving not just for success but for the normalcy of suburbia, a place where Goffin chafes. And while she only wants what's good for her family, she is no doormat. “The girls deserve something better,” she says of their daughters after catching him cheating on her, adding with a roar of audience approval, “And you know what? So do I.”
Supporting the troubled pair are Gulsvig as the smart and ambitious proto-feminist Weil, and Fankhauser as neurotic hypochondriac Mann, a superficial characterization by McGrath that gets most of the show’s laughs. Director Marc Bruni conjures naturalistic harmony among the four old friends, maintaining the material’s emotional beats without losing track of the reason people paid their money — the songs. And while many audience members recall them from the days when they were still hits, you don't have to be a boomer to embrace Beautiful. The songs are timeless, as is King’s struggle over personal and professional adversity to find her place in the pop music pantheon.
Venue: Pantages Theatre, Hollywood
Cast: Abby Mueller, Liam Tobin, Becky Gulsvig, Ben Fankhauser, Curt Bouril, Suzanne Grodner, Ashley Blanchet, Sarah Bockel, Andrew Brewer, Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, Josh A. Dawson, John Michael Dias, Sidney DuPont, Ryan Farnsworth, Matt Faucher, Rosharra Francis, Jay McKenzie, Alaina Mills, Paris Nix, Noah J. Ricketts, Ximone Rose, Salisha Thomas, DeLaney Westfall
Director: Marc Bruni
Book: Doug McGrath
Music and Lyrics: Carol King & Gerry Goffin, Barry Man & Cynthia Weil
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Musical director: Susan Draus
Choreographer: Josh Prince
Orchestrations, vocal and music arrangements: Steve Sidwell
Music supervisor, additional music arrangements: Jason Howland
Presented by Paul Blake, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jeffery 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 Productions/Mary Solomon, William Court Cohen, BarLor Productions, Matthew C. Blank, Tim Hogue, Joel Hyatt, Marianne Mills, Michel J. Moritz, Jr., StylesFour Productions, Brunish & Trinchero, Jeremiah J. Harris