Jukebox musicals thrive on the audience's love for the artists and the nostalgia they feel when they remember the first time they heard and loved the featured songs. Sometimes, you get fluff and fun, like Mamma Mia (both the musical and the movie); sometimes you get hilarious chaos, like Rock of Ages (just the musical); and sometimes you get disappointing and forgetful, like All Shook Up.

And sometimes, you get a gem. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is that gem.

Beautiful is based on the life and works of famed singer/songwriter Carole King, tracing from the first song she sold through her successful launch of her career as a performer. King's illustrious career parallels the evolution of rock music in the 1960s and 1970s, and the show plays to the audience's love of early rock by showcasing not only King's early hits penned with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, but also the music of their contemporaries, most notably their friends and professional rivals, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The music provides the perfect soundtrack to her life - her first song sale and first love, her struggles to balance being a wife, mother, and songwriter, and her strength and reinvention after her marriage falls apart.

The show hits the perfect balance of nostalgia - the songs are carefully selected to show King's growth as a woman and artist, and are mostly familiar with a few pleasant surprises that softly tug at the audience's memory. The show plays off of the audience's knowledge, but never feels forced or exploitative; it also thrives off audience reaction, so it's an impressive balance to draw the audience in without pandering. The nostalgia feeling is also appropriately magnified by Alejo Vietti's incredible costumes and clever costume changes, and Derek McLane's set pieces, which manage to be both boldly colorful and minimalistic.

The show is cleverly written and timed, both with fast witty dialogue and smart transitions into the songs that make up the focal points of the performance. It stays light and fun, but also doesn't totally shy away from some of the heavier themes it touches on out of necessity - while there's little direct acknowledgement of the system of white songwriters writing for primarily black artists, a few comments remind the audience that this racial dynamic shouldn't be entirely ignored. Likewise, while it's not the focus of their relationship issues, Gerry's mental illness is acknowledged, and the show is careful to show his responsibility for his actions without vilifying him or the illness.

None of this would work as powerfully without the careful and skillful direction of Marc Bruni, or the stellar cast he oversees. The ensemble shows incredible versatility and skill in embodying the various artists who sing the music written by King and her colleagues, and the minor characters they portray give each cast member a chance to shine. Suzanne Grodner is delightful as Carole's mother Genie Klein, and James Clow is endearing as Don Kirshner. Dylan S. Wallach both charms and convincingly spirals as Gerry, and Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Heimer make Cynthia and Barry as compelling as the focal couple. Sarah Bockel, though, deserves a tremendous amount of praise for not only successfully embodying an icon, but also doing so in a way that convincingly shows the growth from girl to woman, and from songwriter to musical powerhouse.

As the weather gets cooler, and the pressures of the holiday season set in, Beautiful serves as the perfect escape into a world of fun, music, and sentimentality. It's a lovely show with an empowering message, and you'll walk out ready to turn back around and see it again. Or, at the very least, go home and play the cast album and King's "Tapestry" on repeat.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the National Theatre through December 30th. The performance runs for 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Photo by Joan Marcus, featuring (l to r) James Clow, Dylan S. Wallach, Sarah Bockel, Jacob Heimer, and Alison Whitehurst.

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From This Author Rachael Goldberg

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