January 22, 2014

"Beautiful" is a Pleasing Mash-Up of "Jersey Boys" and "Funny Girl" for Baby-Boomer Gals

The baby boomer musical, shows stitched together around the songbooks of acts popular in the ‘50s, 60’s and ‘70s, is taking over Broadway. The  trend started with the ABBA-scored Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out, in which choreographer Twyla Tharp set a ballet about the Vietnam generation to some old Billy Joel hits. But it got its Big Mo with the 2005 arrival of Jersey Boys, the bio-musical about The Four Seasons that is still running at the August Wilson Theatre.  

Within just the past year, it’s been joined by Motown: The Musical, a bowdlerized version of the life of Berry Gordy Jr., the famed label's founder; Soul Doctor, a musical about Shlomo Carlebach, a singing rabbi popular in the ‘60s, which closed after just 66 performances; and A Night With Janis Joplin, a concert version of that rock star's life that just announced it will close next month. Now comes Beautiful: The Carole King Musical that opened last week at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.

People like these kinds of shows because they can come in humming the tunes and mouth or murmur their familiar lyrics all through the show. And it’s hard to think of catchier melodies or more affecting lyrics than those of songs like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof, “(You Make Me Feel Like) “A Natural Woman” and others written by King and Gerry Goffin, her writing partner and first husband.  
What gives Beautiful its real edge at the box office, however, is that it focuses on how King survived a troubled marriage with Goffin but eventually made a new life for herself with her landmark solo album “Tapestry,” which sold over 10 million copies and won four Grammys. It’s a self-empowerment tale that’s catnip for the menopause matrons who make up Broadway’s most frequent theatergoers. 

But, as is so often the case with these kinds of shows, the book isn’t as good as the music. Beautiful echoes the Funny Girl narrative: a Brooklyn gal with big talent and equally big insecurity about her looks falls for and lands a hot guy, eventually loses him but ends up with a great 11 o’clock number. But Douglas McGrath (best known for co-writing Bullets Over Broadway, which will make its own Broadway debut later this season) takes a paint-by-the-numbers approach to this version of that fairy tale. 
Maybe that’s because so many of the main characters are alive (a long haired, guitar-wielding admirer of King’s is clearly modeled on James Taylor but for some reason is called Nick). Or it could be because King and Goffin’s grown daughter Sherry Kondor has been a very involved producer of Beautiful even though the lady herself has said she won’t see the show because it’s too emotional to relive those days. (Click here to read about the making of the show).

King’s story is better told in Sheila Weller’s excellent book “Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—And the Journey of a Generation” but that version comes without the songs, which are nicely staged in Beautiful by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Josh Prince (click here to read about how the dances were created).
Weller's book also lacks the show’s terrific performances.  Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector bring winning energy and great voices to the roles of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, King and Goffin’s close friends and songwriting rivals, who wrote such pop classics as “Walking in the Rain” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”  

Jake Epstein is a little one-note as Goffin but he sings well and he bears a strong resemblance to photos of the young Goffin. There’s a bad-boy sensuality about both men that makes it easy to see why a woman would fall for and then cling to him.
Of course a Carole King musical has to rise or fall on the shoulders of whoever plays King. I’d had my doubts when I’d heard that Jessie Mueller had been cast in the role. And it’s not because I didn’t think she was talented. In fact, I worried that Mueller’s talent (she’s got a great jazzy belt) might be too overpowering for the gentle, earth-mother essence that the real King exudes.

I’m happy to say that I underestimated Muller. It’s wonderful to see her complete the journey from her terrific breakout performance just two years ago in the otherwise misguided revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever to this bonafide star-making turn in Beautiful (click here for a profile of the actress).

Mueller gives an understated performance that doesn’t call attention to itself but instead captures King’s awkward shyness (not to mention the distinctive rasp of her voice) as well as the emotional turmoil of so many good girls who came of age in the ‘60s.

Those now-mature women sitting around me in the audience (including my jukebox-musical loving sister Joanne) purred with pleasure when Mueller, sporting King’s wavy natural-woman hairdo, launched into the songs from “Tapestry.”  We were all, in King’s words, home again and feeling right. Which, of course, is just what one wants from a baby boomer musical.

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