Packed with unforgettable music and a flashy presentation, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, now playing at the Academy of Music presented by Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia, crafts the journey of one woman from reluctant star to household name. Beautiful traces a large portion of Carole King’s composing and performing career and the tumultuous relationship with her husband and collaborator Gerry Goffin throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Able to boast a generation of beloved songs including “I Feel The Earth Move,” “One Fine Day,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “You’ve Got A Friend,” to name a few, the show serves up musical numbers in spades. For the most part, the pitfalls of any ordinary jukebox musical are avoided. Music functions largely as just good old-fashioned music, rather than clumsily connecting landmarks in an artist’s life story or masquerading as a narrative form. Songs are romantically hatched by two brilliant creative-types huddled around a piano with a few pages of sheet music between them, and moments later are transformed into iconic pop music performances.
With a book by Douglas McGrath, Beautiful has its moments of clunky exposition, much like you might expect from any biopic, but dutifully shapes the story of Carole King’s lucky career from her big break at the tender age of sixteen to her famous Carnegie Hall concert. Marc Bruni’s direction and Josh Prince’s choreography bring a sleekness and explosive energy to the era’s melodies, giving an unforgettable shine to these iconic decades.
The story is packed with mid-century teenage rock-and-roll idealism, much like the similarly themed and soundtracked Hairspray, and deeply cares for music just as much. Exploring the intricacies of the music business, as a business as much as it is a creative endeavor, King’s canon is presented with an austere affection, allowing the tunes to resonate to their fullest with an audience bound to love hearing them live.
The crucial ingredient to making an evening like this so likable, is Abby Mueller, playing Carole King herself, overflowing with likeability. Mueller thrives in the intricacies of what this production is trying to say about King; a Brooklyn girl with plenty of Chutzpah and her improbable rise to stardom. Her bashful humility brushes off the slightest suggestion of greatness, while remaining a woman who knows she’s bound to be great. Her voice evokes Carole King, but never imitates her, and ages elegantly from a fresh-faced teen to her Tapestry era. For every moment that this story has its head stuck in the clouds, Mueller grounds it with realism and sophistication, balancing her power and vulnerabilities with grace.
Rounding out the biography, and completing the other half of the show’s score, is the fellow songwriting team of Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser). A huge success in their own right, the couple pairs perfectly with the joyful Carole King and sullen Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), first as foils and later as best friends. A nimble ensemble completes the musical scrapbook, becoming various vintage acts such as Neil Sedaka, The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers, or whatever the Billboard charts demand, adding snappy dance numbers with a glittering flair.
But in spite of the ostentatious facade, the focus remains on King’s expression through her music, which shines in the simplest moments and truly creates “Some Kind of Wonderful.” Beautiful: The Carole King Musical honors a woman who voiced a generation with her music, as well as her unique journey to finding her own voice.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays through April 3, 2016, and is presented by Kimmel Center’s Broadway Philadelphia, performing at the Academy of Music Broad and Locust Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.
‘Beautiful-The Carole King Musical’ at The Kennedy Center reviewed by David Siegel on DCMetroTheaterArts.