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Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 12, 2014

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Book by Douglas McGrath. Words and music by Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Music by arrangement with Sony/ATV Music Publishing. Directed by Marc Bruni. Choreographed by Josh Prince. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Alejo Vietti. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Wig & hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Make-up design by Joe Dulude II. Orchestrations, vocal and music arrangements by Steve Sidwell. Cast: Jessie Mueller, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, Jarrod Spector, Jeb Brown, Liz Larsen, Ashley Blanchet, E. Clayton Cornelious, Josh Davis, Alysha Deslorieux, Kevin Duda, James Harkness, Carly Hughes, Sara King, Rebecca LaChance, Douglas Lyons, Chris Peluso, Garbrielle Reid, Arbender J. Robinson, Rashidra Scott, Sara Sheperd, Melvin Tunstall.
Theatre: Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43 Street between Broadway and 6 Avenue
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday at 2pm & 7pm, Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm, Sunday at 3pm
Tickets: Telecharge

Jessie Mueller
Photo by Joan Marcus

Well before she moves to the suburbs in Act II, you'll be calling the lead character of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which just opened at the Stephen Sondheim, “Jersey Girl.” And when it comes to this songwriter-bio show, which has a by-the-numbers book by Douglas McGrath and features songs by King and once-upon-a-time husband Gerry Goffin (with whom she moved to the Garden State) and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (who also appear as characters), it's for exactly the reason you expect—and lands with the impact you want least.

That reason, of course, is Jersey Boys. Ever since it opened at the August Wilson more than eight years ago, the Four Seasons showcase has ruled the Broadway Jukebox Musical roost by being at once smart and theatrical. Though that show tells a fairly familiar warts-and-all story of how its quartet of ne'er-do-wells reached the heights of 1960s pop stardom, librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and director Des McAnuff structured and executed it so the inherently dull dramatic form was, at times, electrifying.

Though Beautiful is ultra-slick and impeccably executed for what it is, electrifying it is not. It begins in the Brooklyn home of the 16-year-old Carole Klein (Jessie Mueller), where the girl is arguing with her mother about venturing to 1650 Broadway in Manhattan to sell a song she's written. Mom wants nothing of it but relents only after forcing Carole to promise that, if she doesn't sell this one, she'll let go of this dream and become a teacher. Once she gets into the office of exec Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) and changes her name, she sells that song and her future is set.

In short order she meets Gerry (Jake Epstein) at college, and he's writing lyrics to her music while teaching her about the ways of love. This leads to a pregnancy, a marriage, and a decade-long partnership that runs parallel to that of (and is in constant competition with) Barry and Cynthia, who are as fierce rivals as they are trusted friends. But Gerry's urge to run (and sleep) around gets the better of him, and it's not long before the spurred Carole is left wondering what to do and whether she can live her life alone.

McGrath offers, in other words, nothing you haven't seen before—and nothing that its still-living subjects could honestly object to. (As presented, King has only one “negative” quality: her desire to live outside of NYC.) Neither he nor director Marc Bruni compensates with original staging or song-spotting ideas, leaving the story drifting along speedily if awkwardly from plot point to plot point while each new number erupts in classic and-then-I-wrote variety. Even though every number is sung diegetically, this treatment becomes tiresome by the end of Act I, at which point there's still roughly an hour of stultifying non-story to come.

Carole and Gerry's romance is tracked efficiently through the likes of “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” and the ironically named “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” while Cynthia and Barry croon to “He's Sure the Boy I Love,” “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling,” and “Walking in the Rain” in exploring their own feelings toward each other (which involve a lot of sex but little early marriage). And the use of other tunes of the late-50s, early-60s era “Splish Splash,” “Poison Ivy,” “Love Potion Number Nine,” and so on) definitely place the dueling partnerships in the appropriate pop context, even if the vocal arrangements (by Steve Sidwell, who also orchestrated) occasionally sound distractingly contemporary.

Jessie Mueller with Jeb Brown, Jake Epstein, Jarrod Spector, and Anika Larsen.
Photo by Joan Marcus

But without delightful directing surprises, rollicking comedy or searing tragedy, dazzling choreography (the dances, by Josh Prince, are perfunctory), or even a unifying theme (despite the implicit promise of the title and its namesake song, and a final scene eerily reminiscent of Funny Girl's, Carole's appearance is not even a minor plot point), it's all bomp bah bomp bah bomp without the bomp and rama lama ding dong without the ram. The only thing pushing the action from one scene to the next is Derek McLane's uninspired but ever-moving lubricated-scaffolding set, which Peter Kaczorowski has lit to a candy-colored fare-thee-well. (The restrained 60s-kitsch costumes are by Alejo Vietti.)

Except for Epstein, who's likeable but stilted as Gerry, the supporting performances are game and effective, making the most of their threadbare material. Though Anika Larsen is drastically underutilized as Cynthia, her huge belt voice kept largely under wraps, she's nimble with a one-liner and exhibits fine romantic chemistry with Jarrod Spector, a spitfire as Barry. Don is rendered as little more than a functionary, but Brown imbues him with enough warmth; Liz Larsen does the same with Carole's wise and wise-cracking mother. Smaller roles are likewise well judged, with Kevin Duda (as Neil Sedaka and superstar producer Lou Adler) and Rashidra Scott (as one of the singers Gerry pines for) among the best of a solid bunch.

It's Mueller, however, who has the largest task before her—and the most difficulty executing it. Shown to varying advantage in the recent revivals of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (excellent), Into the Woods (ugh), and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (somewhere in between), Mueller is a genuine talent who possesses a killer voice but iffy star quality. She handles her songs superbly, comfortably suggesting if never outright impersonating King, but registers none of the heat, passion, or heartbreak that made the real deal a chart-topper in the first place. If not for Mueller's punishing amount of stage time, she'd risk vanishing into the ensemble.

This is troubling for any lead, but becomes a particular problem when Carole's big solo hits start appearing and you're left bewildered at how this ordinary, unassuming housewife became the icon she did. As hard as Mueller works, she lacks the charisma needed to transform this kid-gloves enterprise into something, well, beautiful. If Jersey Boys went to great lengths to detail the psychology that drove Frankie Valli and his cohorts to the top—and, more important, made getting there more than half the fun—Beautiful's willingness to settle for bland hagiography rather than dangerous, exciting truth makes the “natural woman” it documents seem as unnatural as stage creations come.

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