Carole King met her co-writer and future husband, Gerry Goffin, when they attended Queens College. The rest, as they say, is history. It’s also “Beautiful!” Starring Jessie Mueller as singer/songwriter Carole King, this wonderful jukebox musical, detailing the early years of King’s career, should have mass appeal for the Baby Boomer generation who grew up with her music.
Most catalog musicals fail when they try to incorporate the music and the lives of performers. “Beautiful” works so well because the book by Douglas McGrath involves the composers rather than just singers. So the music flows naturally from the story. Besides, Carole King is so likeable that we root for her. She is also someone we all can recognize: the Jewish girl whose mother nags her to go to Queens College to become a teacher. King meets Gerry Goffin, who becomes her partner and later her husband. The show only focuses on a six-year portion of King’s life, beginning when Carole sells her first song to producer Don Kirschner, and ending with her performance in Carnegie Hall after the incredible success of her solo album “Tapestry,” which topped the charts for 15 weeks in 1971.
With curly-haired wigs and a slight Brooklyn inflection, Mueller has more than a passing resemblance to King. She manages to imitate King’s slightly raspy voice. Although Mueller is no newcomer to Broadway, she is hardly a household name. Hopefully, this role will change that. Her portrayal of the quietly determined young woman who is self-deprecating but big on talent is excellent. Mueller’s solid performance grows even stronger as King becomes more confident in herself.
With the vivacious Anika Larson playing the feminist Weil, and Jarrod Spector as the hypochondriac Mann, the competition between the two teams seems friendly and spirited. Jake Epstein plays the mentally-unstable philandering husband Goffin. An ensemble of talented singers play multiple roles, portraying the Drifters, Shirelles, Little Eva and The Righteous Brothers. The groups sound enough like the original ones to be acceptable. Often the songs do not sound exactly like the 45s because the groups are performing live on shows like Dick Clark.
“Beautiful” is all about the wonderful music of the 60s and the audience reacts to familiar favorites, mouthing the words and nodding in recognition. Some of the music is simple and silly like “Locomotion” and “Who Put The Bomp.” Other songs tell stories or invoke memories and relationships like “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “On Broadway” and “Upon The Roof.”
The music tells stories and often reminds us of simpler times. Gerry Goffin and Carole King eventually lose “that lovin’ feeling” for each other and separate. Carole King never did get her teacher degree from Queens College, and wasn’t that lucky for the rest of us.
– Elyse Trevers