By: David Sheward
“Who wants to hear a normal person sing?” asks Jessie Mueller as Carole King in the new musical based on the performer-songwriter’s life and works. The answer is every lonely girl dreaming in her bedroom, every woman looking to fulfill herself, or anyone who longs to hear their own fantasies in the form of melody and words. That was the appeal of King, who emerged as the voice of a questing generation with her album Tapestry.
The musical captures a pinch of that sweet, smooth, painfully real sound and the churning emotions it evoked, but, in the end it’s too much like a dozen other jukebox shows. Like Motown, Jersey Boys, A Night with Janis Joplin, and Baby, It’s You, Beautiful is ultimately another “And-then-I-wrote” attraction.
That’s a shame because King’s biography is tailor made for more than a “Behind-the-Scenes” bio-tuner. While still in high school in Queens, Carole Klein was selling teenage crush songs under the name Carole King to record mogul Don Kirshner. While still in her teens, she meets and marries fellow Queens College student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (a sexy, tortured Jake Epstein), and the two pen more than 50 hits. Their professional and personal union dissolves when Goffin begins taking drugs and sleeping with the singers who warble the couple’s tunes. With her collaborator and husband gone, Carole overcomes her fear of performing and writing solo to create such soulful, heart-stopping anthems to life and love as “You’ve Got a Friend,” “So Far Away,” and the shattering “It’s Too Late.”
Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath’s slick book reduces the storyline to a predictable soaper, and too much of the dialogue is used as intros to songs from the King canon in the manner of Mamma Mia. (“Carole, we need a new song for The Drifters.”) McGrath also works in a parallel plotline with Carole and Gerry’s best friends, the songwriting couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (game and likable Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector), which allows for even more awkward melody-shoehorning. Barry Mann serves as a convenient Woody Allen type so McGrath can get off a set of neurotic, hypochondriac gags.
Mueller manages to rise above these shortcomings and emerges as Broadway’s newest star after promising cabaret work and supporting turns in revivals of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She captures the throbbing ache in King’s voice and charts her journey from shy girl to feminist icon with loving detail. Marc Bruni’s staging is just a bit too smooth, as are the ensemble’s re-creations of the King-Goffin-Weil-Mann songbook. For the first time, I understood Simon Cowell’s criticisms of American Idol contestants being “too Broadway.” The Beautiful cast members standing in for the Drifters, Shirelles, etc., lack the rough, raw edge of the originals. Fortunately, the star delivers a warm and wonderful rendition of Carole King’s sound and soul.
Opened Jan. 12 for an open run. Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 7pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission. $75-162. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com