JUKEBOX JOY: Jesse Mueller as Carole King in 'Beautiful-The Carole King Musical.' Photo: Joan Marcus

JUKEBOX JOY: Jesse Mueller as Carole King in ‘Beautiful-The Carole King Musical.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

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BEAUTIFUL–THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL
Book by Douglas McGrath
Music & lyrics by Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
Directed by Mark Bruni
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
124 West 43rd Street, (212-719-1300)
www.beautifulonbroadway.com

By Scott Harrah

Although Beautiful–The Carole King Musical lacks the biographical wallop and dramatic intensity of such jukebox musicals as Jersey Boys and the gleeful fun of Mamma Mia, it’s hard to resist Ms. King’s massive, epic songbook if you’re a Baby Boomer or part of the younger, shoulder group of sensibility, Generation X. Anyone who lived through either the 1960s or 1970s grew up on Carole King’s pop. Unfortunately, the presentation and performances of these venerable songs is hollow and spotty, like watching a highbrow version of TV’s “Solid Gold” or the BBC’s “Top of the Pops.” Even the overture sounds canned and tinny, redolent of those kitschy old K-Tel pop compilations. Regardless, Beautiful has a guilty-pleasure sense of fun and nostalgia and a few hearty performances, making us overlook the show’s many shortcomings.

As Ms. King (Jesse Mueller) herself says in the show, she’s “square” compared to all the hip rock-and-roll creators she worked with in early 1960s New York. A quintessential nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn, Ms. King really was the stereotypical “girl next door,” more interested in marriage and babies than sex and drugs, and she didn’t fit in amongst the countercultural decadence and “free love” emerging around her. Ms. Mueller has Carole King down in every sense, from her gawky mannerisms and outerborough accent to the nasal, plaintive tones of her voice. There is a remarkable sincerity and subtlety in Ms. Mueller’s portrayal, and she does her best with book writer Douglas McGrath’s hackneyed dialogue.

Mr. McGrath’s biography-by-numbers narrative centers on Ms. King’s rise as a middle-class teenager with enough moxie to approach music mogul Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) at the mythic 1650 Broadway in Manhattan and manages to sell her first song, “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” and have it recorded by Bobby Vee. She meets Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), the man who becomes her songwriting partner and husband.

The music soars, but the recreations don’t. Ms. King wrote or co-wrote so many classic pop gems, most of which are here, and the story is merely a frame for everything from “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to “The Locomotion”(recorded first by Little Eva and decades later as the signature track of Australian pop superstar Kylie Minogue) to vintage standards many never know were written by King-Goffin, such as “Another Pleasant Valley Sunday” (yes, the Monkees song). To music aficionados, Ms. King and Mr. Goffin helped establish urban soul, written by whites to be performed by blacks.

Despite being such a groundbreaker for a woman of her era, Ms. King herself was earthbound and ordinary, and although her story is so epic, the details are dull. Bad marriages and a husband’s womanizing are clichés of rock biographies, but the King-Goffin partnership had none of the drama, brutality and twists of, say, Ike and Tina Turner or other music couples of the 1960s and 1970s.

The story of songwriting team Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) is told simultaneously, and is slightly more compelling than that of King-Goffin. Weil and Mann wrote such classics as the Righteous Brothers’ blue-eyed soul masterpiece “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (performed here rather haphazardly), “On Broadway” and the Animals’ rock anthem “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place”.

Last season, Broadway was bludgeoned by Berry Gordy’s vanity project Motown: The Musical, with a dreadful book by Mr. Gordy himself. As puerile and inept as that show was, at least the arsenal of songs were performed seamlessly, like a Motown tribute concert. Although the hit parade here is a nice compendium of King-Goffin and Weil-Mann songs, fans of their work may feel a bit cheated by the shoddy recreations, which sometimes have all the “soul” of a swing choir or an “Up with People” revival.

Director Marc Bruni gets good performances out of most of the actors onstage. Alejo Vietti’s costumes and Josh Prince’s choreography capture the time period, but seem pedestrian and robotic at times.

Even the final scenes, featuring Ms. King performing the tracks from her mega-selling, Grammy-winning solo album Tapestry, from “It’s Too Late” to “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman” sound wooden and half-baked, despite Ms. Mueller’s heartfelt vocal delivery. Still, for fans of Ms. King, Beautiful is far better than most jukebox efforts for the simple fact that a tribute to her oeuvre was long overdue, and her work still influences artists in the 21st century.

 

GREAT SONGS, BUT BOOK FAR FROM 'BEAUTIFUL': Jesse Mueller as Carole King. Photo: Joan Marcus

GREAT SONGS, BUT BOOK FAR FROM ‘BEAUTIFUL’: Jesse Mueller as Carole King. Photo: Joan Marcus

 

POP DUO: Jessie Mueller as Carole King and Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin in 'Beautiful - The Carole King Musical.' Photo: Joan Marcus

POP DUO: Jessie Mueller as Carole King and Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin in ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

 

THE SHIRELLES: (L-R) Ashley Blanchet, Rashidra Scott, Alysha Deslorieux, & Carly Hughes) in 'Beautiful - The Carole King Musical'. Photo: Joan Marcus

THE SHIRELLES: (L-R) Ashley Blanchet, Rashidra Scott, Alysha Deslorieux, & Carly Hughes) in ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’. Photo: Joan Marcus

 

HITMAKERS: (L-R) Jessie Mueller, Anika Larson, Jarrod Spector, & Jake Epstein in 'Beautiful - The Carole King Musical.' Photo: Joan Marcus

HITMAKERS: (L-R) Jessie Mueller, Anika Larson, Jarrod Spector, & Jake Epstein in ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical.’ Photo: Joan Marcus

Edited by Scott Harrah
Published January 16, 2014
Reviewed at press performance on January 15, 2014

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