Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler goes on a musical journey at Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Jessie Mueller enters the stage at the beginning of Beautiful—The Carole King Musical, the latest biopic tale to open on Broadway, and you can’t help but be captivated by her maxi dress, free-flowing hair and natural report with the audience. Mueller burst onto the scene in several years ago in the ill-received revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and still managed to snag a Tony Award nomination for her spot-on performance and jazz-inflected vocals. She has since appeared as Cinderella in the Public Theatre revival of Into the Woods and the Roundabout’s revival of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Make no mistake: Mueller is a chameleon—adept at shifting gears from character actress to ingénue.
In this case, she is saddled with a formulaic book by Douglas McGrath that is so polite and non-confrontational that it leaks any dramatic tension out of the piece. By the middle of Act 1, it’s clear that King and cohorts are going to chat about some theme or creative struggle, namedrop a portion of lyric or song title, then—Pizazz!—The Drifters or The Shirelles appear to deliver the goods.
Most are familiar with King’s work from Tapestry, the 1971 album that earned four Grammy Awards. The song cycle deeply tapped into King’s personal life and helped define the ‘70s era of pop vocals, but her songwriting legacy includes dozens of hits, written in partnership with her husband Gerry Goffin (earnestly portrayed by Jake Epstein). The duo befriended and had a longstanding rivalry with the lyricist/composer team of Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector).
In the musical’s context, these relationships never reach a pinnacle. Goffin’s mood swings (manic depression?) contribute to the dissolve of his marriage to King, but even when tempted with an affair, he tells her first. Although this may be how the facts played out, it certainly doesn’t make for dramatic tension. Nor does the sugarcoated professional competition between the two couples that remain besties through the years as they each vie for the next hit song.
Director Marc Bruni and the design team keep things moving at a brisk pace. The show is tightly directed and seamlessly flows from the songwriters to the pop artists that shared their work with the world. The hard-working ensemble takes on these musical icons, and while they look and sound incredibly polished, there is a decidedly “Broadway” sound to their vocal delivery. Two blocks away, the supporting cast of A Night with Janis Joplin, deliver interpretations of Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Etta James and Aretha Franklin with more vocal authenticity.
Criticism aside, Beautiful delivers an entertaining evening of theater, and while you may feel at times that “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” Jessie Mueller’s performance is, indeed, “Beautiful.”
Beautiful—The Carole King Musical
Stephen Sondheim Theater
124 West 43rd Street
Take a peek at Beautiful on Broadway…