Boomer Alert! This about as much fun as you can have without a time machine. Avoiding every biopic booby trap, Beautiful emerges funny, touching, and buoyant. The line between an excellent production and our own nostalgia is crossed again and again. We clap for both talent and memories.
Carole King’s evolution from the kind of insecure, middle class Brooklyn girl who never ran with the in crowd, to the voice of a generation of poetic, earth women is told with clarity and warmth. I-remember-where-I-was-when songs arise from emotional moments or competitive assignments to become staged production numbers. Evolution keeps us neatly in the story, sequencing is seamless. This is neither a revue (After Midnight), an excuse to exhaustively showcase an idiom (Motown The Musical), or a loose connection of iconic numbers linked together with a cut and paste book (A Night With Janis Joplin). Based, in part, on King’s autobiographical memoir, A Natural Woman, Douglas McGrath’s libretto is terrific.
“Girls don’t write music,” her mother admonished, “they teach.” Determined, Carole Joan Klein (Jessie Mueller) makes her way to Don Kirshner’s (Jeb Brown) Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway across the street from The Brill Building (song factory central). At Queens College, she meets, gets pregnant by, and at 17 marries aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), a looker she considers out of her league. The next year, their co-written “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” becomes the first #1 hit for a black girl group, The Shirelles. “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Take Good Care of My Baby” follow. The young couple have day jobs, writing at night until they can afford to quit.
Coming up at the same time are competitors and soon-to-be-best-friends Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) who connect with one other at Aldon. Weil is a stylish lyricist who aspired to pen Broadway show tunes and sophisticated cabaret. Mann is a hypochondriac womanizer steeped in pop. Here he sounds like Woody Allen. They write “On Broadway” popularized by The Drifters and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” by The Crystals.
We watch choreographed performances (fun!) of “The Locomotion,” “I Got That Lovin’ Feelin,”and “One Fine Day,” among others. As King and Goffin fall apart – in the play, this is attributed to his having a succession of depressive affairs, though there’s allusion to drugs – Weil and Mann come together. Time passes in both individual and musical terms. Aware of changing mores, the writers try to adapt. When “Pleasant Valley Sunday” (inspired by a move to West Orange, New Jersey) is optioned for the television Monkees, King is happy it finds a home, while Goffin is appalled.
Two children in tow, King finally leaves her husband, moves to Laurel Canyon, California, and embarks on a solo career. For the first time since college, she writes both lyrics and music eventually overcoming panic to perform what’s become an especially personal oeuvre. Her second solo album is the phenomenally successful “Tapestry.” To date, Carole King has made 28 solo albums. The opportunity to listen to her output from its very different pop inception to what contributed to the soundtrack of an era is entertaining and illuminating.
Jessie Mueller (Carole King) is appealing and sympathetic. It’s impossible not to be moved by her portrayal of a young woman who, despite early success, never felt she deserved recognition or trusted in love. Mueller Doesn’t imitate our heroine, but reflects her in many ways. She captures voice inflection and phrasing and seems embarrassed even during the Carnegie Hall appearance which bookends the piece. We join in her pain and joy
Jarrod Spector (Barry Mann) here shows himself to be a comic as much as an actor and vocalist. His deadpan timing, while simply delicious, doesn’t obscure the sincerity of a man for whom we root. Energy, ambition, and perseverance are singularly believable aspects of solid character creation. Spector sings these songs as if he was born to.
Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil) and Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin) skillfully define their roles dramatically and physically. Larsen is palpably smart and stubborn. Epstein brings nuanced color to Goffin’s failings. Both sing and act with ease and presence.
Director Marc Bruni works as well with emotional expression as he does staging. Scenes flow from intimate encounters to staged performance replication, to the entire building cut-away for bite-sized tastes of composition in progress. Pacing is deft. Time passes quickly ending on a high.
The company is talented and exuberant. Representation of historical groups is close enough to thoroughly enjoy. Choreography by Josh Prince is evocative of the times yet never looks stale. Derek McLane’s Scenic Design effectively utilizes imaginative and varied lighted panels which sail in and out between non-theater sequences. Alejo Vietti’s Costume Design personifies both the times and specific characters – Carole was never in vogue. Group outfits are likebly flashy.
You’ll leave this show singing, or at least humming, and certainly remembering. Everything outside looks better for awhile.
Photos by Joan Marcus
1. Jessie Mueller as Carole King
2. 1650 Broadway interior
3. Jessie Mueller, Anika Larsen, Jarod Spector, Jake Epstein
Beautiful-The Carole King Musical
Starring Jessie Mueller
Book by Douglas McGrath
Words and Music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King; Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni
Stephen Sondheim Theater
124 West 43rd Street