Bio-juke box musicals are nothing new. In fact, one of my first exposures to musical theatre was seeing my local theatre camp’s production of Leader of the Pack (the Ellie Greenwich story). And there’s been an influx of them in recent years, with some being more successful than others. (For example, Baby It’s You was considered a flop; last season’s Motown is still going strong.) I haven’t seen them all over the years so I don’t know how Beautiful: The Carole King Musical compares, but I tend not to look too favorably on juke box musicals. Yet I found myself unexpectedly moved by Beautiful.
As the full title suggests, Beautiful tells the story of the acclaimed and beloved songwriter and recording artist, Carole King (Jessie Mueller), beginning with King at 16 (when she was still Carole Klein and trying to sell her first song) and continuing through to her seminal work, Tapestry. Along the way, she falls in and out of love with her first husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), who is also her songwriting partner. The story also incorporates the Goffin-King’s personal and professional relationship with their friends and colleagues Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Both couples’ songs are used throughout.
The show, directed by Marc Bruni, starts off strong, with a solid and witty book by Douglas McGrath. As we watch King deal her with typical Jewish mother, Genie Klein (Liz Larsen), use her pluck and talent to be seen by music business impresario Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) and meet Gerry, King’s (and then King and Goffin’s) songs are artfully woven in.
Throughout, there are full songs, not just medleys full of snippets, performed by a wonderfully talented cast. The inclusion of full songs helps make this feel like an outright musical, rather than a glorified concert (unlike, say, Million Dollar Quartet). But that’s also why the second half of act one is disappointing.
About halfway through, act one starts to drags a little, from a storytelling perspective, as the book feels like it was written just to get us to the next song. These moments don’t do much to further the plot or develop the characters. Still, the sequences, featuring glitzy production numbers (choreography is by Josh Prince) from The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), Little Eva (“The Locomotion”), The Drifters (“On Broadway”) and other pop artists from the time (all played by a versatile and hardworking ensemble), are entertaining and are sure to get you bobbing around in your seat. (The numbers all move seamlessly, thanks in part to Derek McLane’s fluid scenic design.)
Although all those musical numbers bring up some interesting points of discussion about music. One sequence features King singing “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and it’s just her and a piano. It’s soft and it has depth, and the performance makes you feel every line. Just a few moments later, The Shirelles sing the song, complete with poppy orchestrations, sparkly costumes (excellent costume design by Alejo Vietti) and a flashy light show (lighting is by Peter Kaczorowski). In this rendition, you miss the heartbreak. The jaunty beat seems to mask the complexity of the lyric.
Then there are the comparisons—or lack thereof—that you can draw between the songs King, Goffin, Weil and Mann wrote and today’s hits. King and company’s songs were the popular songs of their day, and even if they were a little teeny bopper (as the emotionally unstable Goffin would often complain), there’s more substance and more of a human touch than today’s empty pop music. Hardly anything sounds authentic in most of today’s popular music. That was not the case in King’s day; even in The Shirelles’ version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” there’s a palpable human touch that is absent in today’s Top 40 hits. And don’t even get me started on the presentation, which is so much more appealing than what passes for performance in 2014. No twerking, no laser shows, nothing raunchy to sell a sub-par song. Just good melodies, honest lyrics and great voices.
And those voices are great. Ashley Blanchet, Alysha Deslorieux, Carly Hughes and Rashidra Scott pull double-, triple- and sometimes quadruple-duty as the various artists who sang the songs, as do E. Clayton Cornelious, Douglas Lyons, Arbender J. Robinson and James Harkness, who appear as the various boy bands. (Josh Davis and Kevin Duda also take on The Righteous Brothers.)
Epstein and Spector (as Goffin and Mann, respectively) both do fine work. Epstein is tender in Goffin’s early interactions with King and has good chemistry with Mueller. Spector is a little Woody Allen-ish when we first meet Mann, a hypochondriac, but really sells “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” in act two. (By the way, the strong book returns to finish act one and continues throughout act two.) As fellow songwriter and King’s gal pal Cynthia Weil, Anika Larsen is impressive. Her Cynthia is strong and sassy, and Larsen shows growth in the character.
But the show belongs to the luminescent Jessie Mueller (On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Mystery of Edwin Drood). She is incredible. Even if Vietti’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s wig and hair design didn’t help the audience keep time and serve as outward signals of where on her journey King is, Mueller’s honest and passionate performance would be all you need. Her voice, her soul, her spunk. She’s simply—naturally—sensational.
For more information about Beautiful, to explore the music and to purchase tickets, visit beautifulonbroadway.com.
(Production stills, from Broadwayworld.com, are by Joan Marcus.)