Monday, January 13, 2014

Review of "Beautiful - the Carole King Musical"

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, is an entertaining blend of charm, nostalgia, and showmanship.  The show’s overall feel and musicality will resonate greatly with a generation of baby boomers (as well as younger audiences).  Jessie Mueller, who plays the pop icon, gives an impressive performance, both for her embodiment of the singer-songwriter as well as for her rousing musicianship on the piano.  The show, unlike recent jukebox musicals, has a mostly compelling book (think Jersey Boys), that traces the artist’s formative years in the music industry, from a bashful, yet assertive 17 year old, through the defining moment of her career, the release of her solo album, "Tapestry," still one of the biggest selling albums in music history with over 25 million sold.  The story of Beautiful is not always uplifting as King deals with an early marriage, divorce, single parenthood, and a crisis of confidence during these years.

King, alone and with then husband Gerry Goffin, penned dozens of hit songs, which form the basis for much of the show’s score.  They include their first number one record, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof,” “The Locomotion,” and a generous helping of songs from the landmark LP, Tapestry.  But while this is a musical spotlighting Carole King, book writer Douglas McGrath has smartly woven into the mix the friendly, playful, and competitive esprit de corps Goffin and King had with songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.  This allows for a generous dollop of their hits which include “Walking in the Rain,” “On Broadway,” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” (the most played song of the 20th century).  

While the book provides a cohesive plot and allows for a firmly developed point-counterpoint between the songwriting teams, the overall results for Beautiful are problematic, primarily, because McGrath has so much material to choose from.  The question boils down to what to include/condense/omit within the roughly twenty-year time frame of the musical.  This allows, for example, only glimpses into the creative process where, even occasionally, a more expansive exploration would have been satisfying.  The introduction of musical acts, performing some of the hits quickly referenced in the show, are well-done, but break-up the momentum of the production, especially in Act I. 

The four actors portraying the two song writing teams are engaging and appealing individually and as a group.  Jessie Mueller’s portrayal of the legendary singer is a career-making role.  She personifies King’s vulnerability, charm, and chutzpah.  Her smile, from the very first notes of the show, to its rousing finale, lights up the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.  Jake Epstein gives Gerry Goffin a brash and self-confident air, at first, but then effectively changes direction as he is consumed by insecurities and self-doubt.  Anika Larsen is self-assured and vibrant as Carolyn Weil while Jarrod Spector, who played Franki Valli in Jersey Boys for over 1,500 performances, adds a fine comic touch as the composer Barry Mann.

Director Marc Bruni adroitly guides the production, skillfully presenting the abridged version of King’s early career.    While the machinations of Act I prove somewhat unwieldly, the director regains his footing during the more straightforward narrative of Act II.  He’s at his best when working with the songwriters either in tandem or all together. 

Derek McLane’s two-story set gives one the sense of the close quartered, frenetic, and free-wheeling activity artists worked under at Aldon Music, the hit-making factory of music producer Don Kirshner, who shephered both Goffin-King’s and Weil-Mann’s early start.

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, a highly pleasing trip down memory lane.

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