Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Stephen Sondheim Theatre
New York, NY
Like an old-time soap opera, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, asks the question: Can this little girl from Brooklyn find happiness across the river as a successful Manhattan songwriter?  She can if she's Carole King, nee Klein.

Not a beauty but smart, talented, and determined, at age 16 and despite her mother's reluctance, Carole decides to offer her latest song to Aldon Music, a music factory creating pop-rock hits ("Splish-Splash" and "Poison Ivy") at 1650 Broadway.  She finds in producer, Donnie Kirshner (Jeb Brown), someone willing to give her a chance.

"This isn't the Brill Building with their fancy big time writers," says Kirshner.  "I have a different philosophy.  Teenagers buy more records than anybody these days. Who better to write for kids than kids? And girl songs are very popular right now. Let’s hear your song."  When Carole sits at the piano to sing "It Might as Well Rain Until September," Carole Klein becomes Carole King.

With Jessie Mueller's warmth, sensitivity and authentic throaty reminiscence to Carole King,  Beautiful, at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, is an engaging biography of a down-to-earth girl who hits the jackpot.  Her story is identifiable, the songs are irresistible, nostalgia weaves through the plot, and while Douglas McGrath's book races through the years, his story is compelling and the end product is undeniably feel-good.

The staging is fast-paced and slick.  Directed by Marc Bruni, the focus is on King's evolution in her music and her love for Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), who becomes her collaborator and husband.  King is a nice Jewish girl of the 1950s and wants a house in the suburbs and babies.  Goffin, unfortunately, turns out to be a womanizer and substance abuser.  Their stories are reflected in their songs, all written for specific singers, "Take Good Care of My Baby" for Bobby Vee and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" was a Number One hit recorded by the Shirelles.

Jessie Mueller's stunning 2011 Broadway debut was opposite Harry Connick Jr. in the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.  Her potent vocal richness and acting versatility was evident in that show and in Beautiful, Mueller has a chance to shine brilliantlyVocally and physically, she never loses her character's honesty and values, a mix of spunky confidence yet always insecure about succeeding on her own.  She has a snappy sense of humor but still harbors the poignancy that brings universality to her music.  Incidentally, another plus for Jessie Mueller is the positions of her hands on the keyboard.  Mueller took piano lessons to learn hand placement before taking the role.  Give her another A-plus for that detail in this first-rate portrayal.

As Gerry Goffin, Epstein is a persuasive charmer, eliciting enough sympathy for his edgy character to prove why King stuck with him through sick and sin.  It is not until the late 1960s and the end of the show that she makes the break from Goffin, Kirshner and Aldon Music and heads to California to strike solo gold.  For the first time, she sings the song she wrote earlier with Goffin for Aretha Franklin, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."  The percussive beat of "I Feel the Earth Move," a major hit in her 1971 Tapestry album, is heard only in the overture and when the cast gathers for its bows to a standing audience.

Beautiful's other two leads are fellow songwriters and friendly competitors to King and Goffin, Cynthia Weill (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (played by Jarrod Spector who just came off a lengthy run as Frankie Valli in Jersey Boys).  The sharp, chic and untraditional Weill and hyperactive Mann are a charismatic pair, a contrast in styles, and top writers themselves with hits like "On Broadway" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."  One of the most touching moments is their farewell to King, who, in parting, sings, “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Supporting players are more stereotyped, like Jeb Brown as the demanding Donnie Kirshner.  Liz Larsen, who gives her portrayal of Carole's mother, Genie Klein, a sharp but loyal presence throughout her daughter's life.  Ensemble singers and dancers are superb, enlivening the rhythms and harmonies of the era.

Derek McLane's set gives two-story space to Bruni's direction and catchy choreography by Josh Prince.  Flashy costumes by designer Alejo Vietti and Charles G. LaPointe's wig and hair design zoom right back to the '60's.  Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski makes the stage sparkle and Brian Ronan delivers a powerful sound.

Did this little girl from Brooklyn find happiness across the river as a successful Manhattan songwriter?  McGrath's book creates the feeling of a soap opera but don't scoff.  Some soaps have held loyal audiences for years, even generations.  With the heart and everyday humanity of Jessie Mueller,  Beautiful, unlike many jukebox musicals, has this feeling of a hit.

(Photo: Jessie Mueller and cast by Joan Marcus)

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Cabaret Scenes
January 16, 2014