By Philip Dorian
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is like the little girl with the curl. When it’s good it’s very good (the first act) and when it falters (much of Act 2) it’s…well, not so good.
The difference lies in the proportion of music to book. Act 1 is 80/20 music; act two reverses that ratio. My enthralled companion scoffed at negative comments about the soap-opera tone that permeates Act 2. “So what?” she declared. She was right: Considering the nostalgic stream of musical gems that flow through “Beautiful,” and the terrific performance by Jessie Mueller, zeroing in on the book is to ignore the show’s dominant charms.
Carole (Ms. Mueller) announces, “I never meant to be a singer.” What she wants, against her nagging mother’s advice, is to write music. At age 16 she gains an audience with music publisher Don Kirshner who takes her on and expedites her collaboration with aspiring lyricist Gerry Goffin, whom she married at 17 after becoming pregnant.
The King-Goffin marriage did not survive, but together in the late 1950s and early ‘60s they were a virtual hit machine. The Drifters’ chart-topping “Some Kind of Wonderful” was theirs, as was “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles, and for Little Eva, portrayed here as their former baby-sitter, “The Locomotion.”
“Beautiful” has more in common with “Jersey Boys” than with any other of the so-called “jukebox musicals,” in that most of the songs emerge organically from the story. Unlike the Four Seasons musical, though, assorted individuals and groups perform the numbers in addition to Carole herself. Neil Sedaka and the Righteous Brothers show up, as do those mentioned above. It’s a welcome variety.
Another of the era’s top songwriting team also plays a prominent role in “Beautiful.” Once Carole King began performing, composers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, represented by “Walking in the Rain” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” became integral to her concert and recording successes. (Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector bring warmth and humor to those roles). With snippets of “Yaketty Yak” and “Love Potion #9,” there’s also a smattering of Lieber and Stoller. (In case you think this is just a song list, know that I haven’t named half of the 25 tunes memorably recreated.)
The role is Jessie Mueller’s rightful springboard to stardom. She’s an expressive actor who enchants everyone in her presence. In an effective device, several numbers begin with Carole singing to her own solo-piano accompaniment before the superb 12-piece orchestra fades in. As it does, Ms. Mueller swells up along with it, and her incarnation of Carole King becomes… beautiful.
It’s been reported that Ms. King hasn’t seen the show. Bailing on an early reading, she said “I can’t watch my life played out before me.” But there’s nothing overly revealing about the singer-songwriter’s personal life (three more failed marriages after the one to Goffin are not mentioned) in her namesake musical. If she does attend, one would hope she’d admire Jessie Mueller’s performance. And, if she objects to anything in the book, she can just say “So what?”
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York City. Shows: 7 p.m. Tuesday –Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Wednesday and Saturday; and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 212-239-6200 and Telecharge.com.