BWW Reviews: BEAUTIFUL Really Does Try To Make It
She's a sassy, confident young gal who idolizes lyricists like Lorenz Hart and dreams of writing clever, emotionally-rich words for the new genre called rock and roll. He's a neurotic New Yorker with a self-depreciating sense of humor who can bang out catchy melodies that itch to embellish great narratives. They're nuts about each other and he wants to make it legal, but as a modern woman of the liberation era, she avoids marriage for fear of evolving into the traditional gender roles of a wife, rather than breaking molds as an accomplished individual.
Together, they help advance the popular music of their day from bubble gum fun to realistic portraits like "On Broadway," "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." As portrayed on stage in the new musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, their scenes pop out with witty humor, playfulness and vibrant Broadway vocals by Anika Larsen matched with Jarrod Spector's angsty urban blues.
Unfortunately, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann are the secondary couple in Beautiful, a musical biography of Carole King that frequently pushes its central character aside for more interesting and entertaining moments played out by its skilled and talented supporting ensemble.
It's no fault of top-billed star Jessie Mueller, who grabbed Broadway's attention for her jazzy stylings in On A Clear Day You Can See Forever and displayed crack comical chops in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, that her first original starring vehicle downplays her talents until the last half-hour or so of the evening, as she plays a young Brooklyn girl with ambition who grows into a woman who seems content to stay in the background and live an ordinary suburban married life until circumstances force her to find her own voice.
When Mueller finally takes hold of the spotlight in the musical's fourth quarter, we see how King's accessible, smart-and-sensitive-girl-next-door appeal won over audiences with Tapestry, her second album as a vocalist and her first as a composer writing her own lyrics instead of being half of a writing team with her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein, given a cardboard role to play), penning hits for others at Don Kirschner's 1650 Broadway hit factory. (A line in the script reminds the audience, "This isn't the Brill Building with their fancy big time writers.")
Perhaps Beautiful would have greater emotional impact if bookwriter Douglas McGrath focused more on how the songs of her 1971 Grammy-winning album reflected King's experiences and emotions while falling in love, getting married and becoming a mother as a teenager, only to be divorced by her mid-20s. The blossoming of an artist from composer to composer/lyricist who voices her own words and melodies can make for powerful theatre. Unfortunately, Beautiful's central plot is more of a soapy, shorthand connect-the-dots between hit songs.
Mueller does sing a bit in the first act - using a pleasant but plain voice appropriate for her character - as we see the creation of chart-toppers like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?," "Up On The Roof" and "The Locomotion," but the applause-getting musical highlights come when ensemble members portraying The Shirelles, The Drifters and Little Eva give full-out performances.
The same format is used when Weil and Mann's scenes give way to performances by The Righteous Brothers and The Drifters, but they do share a charming moment for themselves centered on the writing of "Walking In The Rain."
Mixed in with all these real-life portrayals are two seemingly fictional characters. With no mention of The Chiffons, "One Fine Day" is performed by a woman named Janelle Woods (Rashidra Scott), who turns out to be Goffin's first extra-marital lover. "Pleasant Valley Sunday" is introduced as a hit for The Monkees, but it's sung by someone named Marilyn Wald (Sara King), another Goffin liaison.
It's also mentioned that Woods, who is black, holds back her performances when playing for white audiences. Earlier in the show, one of The Shirelles says they're looking for a more elegant sound that will get them air time beyond the R&B stations. These two quick instances are the only times the book expands on a theme that is so apparent in the visuals and far more interesting than much of what is happening on stage; that we're watching a group of white artists and producers working with black talent to create a sound that would make them more accessible to white America.
The book also depicts moments of stuttering emotional outbursts by Goffin, but audience members unaware of King's claim that he suffered LSD-induced manic-depression wouldn't have a clue as to what's going on.
But for those with little interest in the dramatic effectiveness of musical theatre, Beautiful certainly entertains. Director Marc Bruni's production isn't flashy, but it moves smoothly and the fine singers, performing period moves choreographed by Josh Prince, serve their assembled score well.
Musical theatre vets Liz Larsen and Jeb Brown contribute nicely in their non-singing roles as King's standard-issue pushy Jewish mom and as a tough-loving Kirshner, whose golden touch comes from his ability to create a competitive atmosphere among his contracted writers.
By the time Mueller is allowed to vocally let loose on "A Natural Woman" and wrap up the evening by wrapping her heart around the title tune, the genial inoffensiveness of the musical's creaky dramatics has denied her any chance of truly connecting the emotions of the songs to the character she's been playing all night, reducing the moments to merely chances to admire the artistry of a rising Broadway star being granted center stage. And for many, that'll be enough to make Beautiful a swell night out.