A Magical Time

01.13.14

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ Review: A Few Discordant Notes, But Damn Great Songs

If you like Carole King, then ‘Beautiful’ is for you. Jessie Mueller soars as the Brooklyn songwriter who grows from ugly duckling to fierce woman in the ‘60s.

As the core Broadway audience ages into the early and late boomer years, producers are giving them what they want—revue-like shows of the music that defined their teens. Jersey Boys documents the early-1960s burst to stardom of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. A Night With Janis Joplin covers the husky-voiced supernova whose life ended in tragedy. Beautiful, which opens Monday, is based on the much-longer, much-more charmed musical life of Carole King.

Spanning from 1958 to 1971, Beautiful covers the arc of King’s career against the backdrop of a magical time in music.

The 1960s were a time of ferment. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones stormed in from across the Atlantic, Dylan and his folk crew prowled the West Village, in Detroit African-Americans were finally taking ownership of all aspect of the music business, and everywhere songwriters were into singers. Amid this, however, New York occupied a central place in the assembly-line production of hits and musical acts.

At two and a half hours, Beautiful sails by quickly—one non-confrontational, unabashedly pop, drop of ear candy follows another.

King, who is portrayed—and musically inhabited—by the fantastic Jessie Mueller, was right in the middle of it. Raised in Brooklyn, and reared on Gershwin and the harmonies of doo-wop, she started writing songs for Dimension records as a teenager. She knew Paul Simon and Neil Sedaka. At Queens College, she met Gerry Goffin, a charismatic chemistry major who supplied the lyrics to her chords and melodies. They married when she got pregnant. And together these kids churned out a stunning string of pearls, largely for African-American groups and artists: “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Up on the Roof” for the Drifters, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “One Fine Day,” for the Chiffons.

That’s perfect fodder for a revue. But Beautiful is billed as “The Carole King Musical.” As such, it aims to tell the story of King’s growth—from an ugly duckling (Mueller, a lovely actress, is made to look frumpy, borderline homely), to an uncertain married young mother, to a fierce, confident, independent, natural woman.

Ironically, for a show about people who were brilliant wordsmiths and had a great facility matching words to music, the book isn’t particularly inspiring. The actors speak in the slightly exaggerated, clipped outerborough accents you’d recognize from West Side Story. The tension is supplied by the crappy marriage with Goffin (Jake Epstein), who is depicted as an emotionally fragile and unreliable as a husband, father and partner.  To round out the story, the writers shoehorn in the subsidiary tale of another song-writing duo, Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector, recently of Jersey Boys), who wrote classic such as “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” and “On Broadway.”

There are a few discordant notes. Larsen plays Cynthia Weil as a sweet-voiced blonde, more Midwest than Midwood. The dialogue is often mannered, as if the actors know they’re only filling space in between musical numbers. But that’s easily forgotten, because the songs—and the musical performances—are pretty damn great.  

Just as lilting melodies sprung effortlessly from King’s hands at the piano, King’s music pours out of Mueller with little apparent effort. For this role, Mueller, who earned a Tony nomination for her turn in On a Clear Day, ironed the vibrato out of her Broadway alto. Mueller sings straightforwardly, in the lower end of the register—channeling King without imitating her.

At two and a half hours, Beautiful sails by quickly—one non-confrontational, unabashedly pop, drop of ear candy follows another. Mueller and the leads swap off singing duties with the ensemble, which comes together to form the Drifters—all slick suits, slick dance moves, and slick harmonies—the Shirelles, and the Righteous Brothers. The story zips by, too: the troubled marriage, the friendly rivalry with Weil and Mann, King eventually finding her voice as a woman and a singer when she moves to California in the late 1960s and sets to work on the album filled that would become Tapestry, which is filled with complex chords and enduring hits (“It’s Too Late,” “Natural Woman,” etc.)

While Jarrod Spector, who has 1,500 performances as Frankie Valli under his belt, is solid in the supporting role of Barry Mann, across the board, the female performances are more lively, heartfelt and scene-stealing. Ashley Blanchet churns through “The Locomotion,” as Little Eva, who, of course, baby sat for King and Goffin. Goffin is a largely unappealing character—he’s unfaithful and weak, not much of a match for King. And Jake Epstein’s voice, high and reedy, isn’t much of a match for Mueller.

Of course, that’s sort of the point. King’s chords, and, ultimately, her lyrics and voice, are the real stars of the show. And Mueller, who has a background in classic Broadway and jazz, nails it. Take a look around YouTube and you’ll find that Mueller can swing, croon, and warble, and more than hold her own with Alpha musical males like Harry Connick, Jr. But as Carole King, Mueller shows she can easily carry a show for two hours. And with a brief, foot-stomping encore of “I Feel the Earth Move,” she proved she can rock a bit, too.