Watching Beautiful, the new jukebox musical celebrating the remarkable life and work of Carole King, you may not feel the earth move under your feet. But the new Broadway show emerges as a slick and joyous celebration of female empowerment.
Like Jersey Boys, Beautiful features a smart, well-crafted, and often funny book (by Douglas McGrath) that cleverly threads together a memorable catalog of early rock hits such as ”Some Kind of Wonderful” and ”Take Good Care of My Baby.” It also boasts a winning central performance by Jessie Mueller as the shy Jewish girl from Brooklyn who only gradually comes into her own as a headlining voice of a generation.
King’s story is the stuff of many a Lifetime movie — which seems perfect for stage treatment since the Broadway League just reported that the typical theater ticket buyer is also middle-aged, white, and female. As a plain-Jane teenager, King falls for a too-cool aspiring writer named Gerry Goffin (DeGrassi alum Jake Epstein, solid but a little one-note), whom she marries and collaborates with on a string of hits songs in the 1960s. (She’s the sort of woman who says of herself, ”I have the right amount of body. It’s just not organized properly.”) But Goffin turns out to be an insecure, psychologically troubled horndog. Their eventual split, and her subsequent move to L.A., will spark a creative catharsis that results in her recording the seminal 1971 album Tapestry.
What makes King a compelling artist are her introspection and magnanimity — she generously continued to credit Goffin’s contributions to her work long after their divorce. But those are not qualities one often finds in the heroine of a Broadway musical, and at times Mueller can get lost in the role’s inherent understatement (though her vocal mimickry of King’s nasal non-belter’s voice is admirable).
Thankfully, Beautiful fills the charisma vacuum with the substantial addition of King and Goffin’s friendly songwriting rivals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, played with megawatt scene-stealing abandon by Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector. She’s a brassy blonde with a gift for turning a phrase; he’s a fast-talking neurotic nebbish who eventually wears down her reluctance to commit. (Never mind that they married in 1961, shortly after they met.) Together, they have an almost combustible romantic chemistry that upstages anything Mueller and Epstein can muster as the star-crossed central couple.
Of course, adding Mann and Weil also allows the inclusion of hits like ”On Broadway” and ”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” made famous by the same artists for whom King and Goffin were also cranking out tunes. And as directed by Marc Bruni, the first act becomes a top-this back-and-forth as the dueling songwriting teams pitch tunes to producer Don Kirschner (Jeb Brown) that segue into full-blown production numbers for a talented ensemble imitating the Drifters, the Shirelles, and the Righteous Brothers. Josh Prince’s choreography (and Alejo Vietti’s glittery costumes) sometimes verge on the cheesy; I often preferred the stripped-down snippets of these songs that the scribes first banged out on the piano for Kirschner. (But in the case of ”We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” an overlong solo that Spector must belt out in a suburban living room while ”playing” a prop guitar, a little more staging — really, any staging — would have helped.)
The show’s occasional infelicities seem less glaring by the end of the second act, as King comes into her own as a solo artist. Mueller, too, seems to rise to her moment in the spotlight, bringing real depth and feeling to ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the title number. Shedding her permed ?do for King’s familiar frizzy mop, she completes the physical transformation we’ve come to expect from the modern-day princess story. She’s as beautiful as she feels. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)