“Beautiful–The Carole King Musical” is like a feel-good concert by your favorite band on a warm summer’s eve in the park. One instantly-recognizable song ends, and almost before you know it another one begins; and just when you think they’ve run out of songs to tug you down memory lane, amazingly, impossibly…the opening notes of another, and then another, fill the air.
Jessie Mueller plays songwriting legend Carole King with a combination of endearing humility and bright-eyed enthusiasm. (She is self-effacing about everything except her songwriting ability.) As the show opens, she is ignoring her over-protective mother’s pleas to become a teacher, teaming up, professionally and romantically, with the slightly older Gerry (whom she meets in college), landing the job of her dreams at the Times Square hit factory run by the demanding but nurturing music impresario Don Kirshner, and…well, the rest, as they say, is history.
Mueller handles it all with sweetness and grace and enough emotional weight, when necessary, to give her character depth; she marries, has kids, competes good-naturedly with songwriting pals Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (authors of an absurd number of hits of their own), copes with Gerry’s repeated infidelities, conquers her stage fright, and (eventually) moves–triumphant and hugely successful–to L.A.
Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector are terrific as her friends; Liz Larsen underplays King’s (nee Klein’s) stereotypically Jewish mother to great comic effect; and, at the performance I attended, Chris Peluso (stepping in nicely for Jake Epstein) pulled off the difficult role of the talented but troubled Gerry with shading and substance. Marc Bruni’s direction keeps the action flowing swiftly, and Derek McLane’s set–multi-level here, simpler and more streamlined there–often allows us to see nearly everyone in the hardworking cast (many of them play multiple roles) nearly all of the time.
First and foremost, however, “Beautiful” is a celebration of King’s incredible catalogue of songs, and what songs they are. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” (written when she was 17!), “One Fine Day”, and–among her many others– the title song will have you smiling and swaying and humming right along, even if you don’t know the words. (The best news of all: familiarity with her work is NOT a requirement.) And those are just HER songs; Weil and Mann classics like “Walking in the Rain” and–most memorably–the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” will have you hoppin’ and boppin’ (or wanting to) even more.
Make no mistake about it: Like the dozens of Top 40 tunes that King & Co. made a part of the American musical lexicon, “Beautiful–The Carole King Musical” is a certifiable, solid gold hit.
THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien