|BEAUTIFUL — THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL|
Proving once again that there is both a right way (“Jersey Boys”) and a wrong way (“Baby It’s You”) to create a so-called “jukebox musical,” Beautiful, now at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, takes the early life story – and music – of the legendary singer-songwriter Carole King to create one of the most entertaining Broadway shows in years. All of the necessary elements have come together here, from a surprisingly smart and witty book by Douglas McGrath, smooth direction by Marc Bruni, lively, period-feeling choreography by Josh Prince, and the work of a consistently top-notch cast led by the extraordinary Jessie Mueller as King. As a result, audiences leave with a song on their lips, a smile on their face, and even a tingle in their heart.
The 2 ˝-hour musical charts the first 15 years or so of King’s career, which was primarily spent as a preternaturally talented songwriter-for-hire with young husband Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), working under the auspices of Don Kirshner (an often hilarious Jeb Brown). As McGrath’s book points out, Goffin was a brilliant yet troubled young man -- one who would eventually break up the couple’s personal and professional life through his infidelities and mood swings. But what could be melodrama is actually drama as Mueller, who brings great acting depth to the part of the modest, self-deprecating King, and the extremely impressive Epstein create a truly believable couple, making their eventual disengagement surprisingly heartbreaking. (The use of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is particularly deft.)
Meanwhile, McGrath cleverly uses the pairing of King and Goffin’s best friends and friendly rivals, the hyper-neurotic Barry Mann (a scene-stealing Jarrod Spector) and the whip-smart Cynthia Weil (the sensational Anika Larsen) as a comic counterpoint. We’re also treated to some of that pair’s biggest hits from the period, including “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” which are among the many great songs performed by a dazzling ensemble, who effortlessly recreate such landmark groups as The Drifters, The Shirelles, and The Righteous Brothers.
For much of the music-heavy first act, some theatergoers may be in awe when they realize how many chart-toppers King and Goffin actually wrote, including “One Fine Day,” “Up on the Roof,” and “The Locomotion.” The show does occasionally resemble a concert, as it tries to fit in these and other smash tunes, but McGrath and company never leave the central story of King’s growth as a person and artist for too long.
Still – except for the opening number – audiences must wait until the final 20 minutes or so to hear their first song from King’s landmark solo album “Tapestry,” which almost literally defined its generation. People who have seen Mueller in any of her previous New York appearances (“On a Clear Day,” “Into the Woods,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” or “Carousel”) may well be rightly shocked how she’s transformed her voice into a facsimile of King’s signature sound. What shouldn’t surprise them is how much feeling she puts into these still timeless, gorgeously crafted lyrics. A Tony Award nomination (and possibly the statuette itself) are definitely in order.
Beautiful is poised to be a big hit, so get those tickets now -- before it’s too late, baby.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, Jeb Brown, Liz Larsen, Ashley Blanchet, E. Clayton Cornelious, Joshua Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Kevin Duda, James Harkness, Carly Hughes, Sara King, Rebecca LaChance, Douglas Lyons, Chris Peluso, Gabrielle Reid, Arbender Robinson, Rashidra Scott, Sara Sheperd, Melvin Tunstall
Stephen Sondheim Theatre
124 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036