Broadway-bound Carole King bio truly is Beautiful

Oct 09

Beautiful the Musical
The cast of the Broadway-bound Beautiful: The Carole King Musical includes, from left, Jeb Brown as Don Kirshner, Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Jessie Mueller as Carole King, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann and Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil. Below: Mueller as King and Epstein as Goffin experience their own personal “some kind of wonderful” in the world-premiere of Beautiful at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Joan Marcus

You know that Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has worked its musical biography magic when, during the curtain calls, the extraordinary Jessie Mueller takes her bow, you feel like you’re applauding an actor for her superb performance as King and you feel like you’re acknowledging King herself and all of the remarkable work she has contributed over the last five decades.

King is nowhere to be found in the creation of this Broadway-bound enterprise except where it really counts: in the music. She has apparently given her blessing to the production and stepped away to let the storytellers do their thing. The story that book writer Douglas McGrath and director Marc Bruni are telling springs out of King’s early start in the songwriting business and her eventual triumph as a seminal singer-songwriter of the 1970s, but the show is really a tribute to the craft of songwriting.

While Jersey Boys, another well-crafted jukebox musical with which Beautiful shares some structural DNA, traffics in flash and punch, this show revels in the bumpy joys and frustrations of crafting pop music. Happily, Beautiful is rather old-fashioned in its presentation in that set designer Derek McLane gives us twirling, sliding sets full of actual furniture with nary a projection in sight. When action shifts from the songwriters’ offices to the actual performance of the songs on TV or on stage somewhere, light panels fly in that look like flashing Christmas decorations. There’s something a little cheesy about that but in a satisfying, ’60s variety show kind of way.

McGrath sets up the story such that Act 1 focuses on King’s launch into the songwriting world at age 16 followed quickly by her marriage to Gerry Goffin, her songwriting partner, at 17. We watch as the pair churns out hit (“Some Kind of Wonderful”) after hit (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”) after hit (“Up on the Roof”) after hit (“Locomotion”), fueled in no small part by their competition with the songwriting couple in the room next door, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, the hit-makers behind “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” among many others.

Beautiful the Musical

As Carole and Gerry (Mueller and Jake Epstein) revel in every Top 10 or No. 1 hit, Cynthia and Barry (Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector) work even more furiously to top them. All the while, the two couples become close friends, so when the Goffin-King marriage begins to fall apart (a victim of his philandering, suggested drug use, possible mental illness), they are the support Carole needs as she moves into the next phase of her musical life and the massive success around the corner called “Tapestry,” which is where this biography ends.

The music in this 2 1/2-hour experience is thrilling – musical supervisor Jason Howland and co-orchestrator/vocal arranger Steve Sidwell deserve tremendous credit for helping the 12-piece orchestra sound so big, vibrant and authentic. There’s a medley early in Act 1 that conveys how pop tunes were being cranked out of New York’s Brill Building as if it were a song factory. Aside from that medley, when songs are performed here, they are performed in their entirety (as it should be in a show reveling in the creation of pop music). We get them in their nascent stages as lyricist (Goffin, Weil) and composer (King, Mann) pair words and music, and then we get full-on performances by the likes of the Drifters, the Shirelles and Little Eva (the ensemble is absolutely terrific) with their spot-on ’60s pop group choreography by Josh Prince.

The principals all have glorious voices, but Mueller is astonishing in the way she conveys King’s vocal style without directly imitating her.

Where the show needs work is in the sections depicting Goffin’s breakdown and King’s emergence as a performer in her own right. It’s a rush from divorce to Carnegie Hall without conveying a deep enough sense of what was at stake for King, who shied from live performance. In early talks about making a solo album, she is promised Carnegie Hall as a way to promote that album (it’s never mentioned that her first solo album, “Writer,” was not a hit). But then, in a flash, we’re at Carnegie Hall and “Tapestry,” her second solo album, has already won a slew of Grammys.

The last person we want to lose track of here is Carole King. But Mueller, whose warmth and grounded practicality imbue the stage King with the kind of real-person reality often missing in musical bios, pulls us back into the wonder of King with her performance of “Beautiful.” Seated at the piano, she explodes with joy in every lyric and note. And there can be no more fitting tribute to Carole King than that.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Beautiful star Jessie Mueller for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through Oct. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$120 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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