Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Stephen Sondheim Theatre – NYC)

One of the main reasons I made the New York trip this frigid February was to see Tony winner Jessie Mueller in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical before she leaves the show the first week of March. I first saw Ms. Mueller in the fall of 2011 in the ill-fated Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in the reshaped part of Melinda, rewritten as being a supporting character from what was originally a dual leading role. No matter – Ms. Mueller was like a breath of fresh air, and I’m glad I saw the show not because I loved the score (I do) but because I loved the way she sang it (though even that was limited to the interpolated tunes from Royal Wedding). And now she’s a Tony winner, and I’ve been playing the cast recording of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical in my car for weeks in anticipation of seeing it live, as I did last night. I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.

Ms. Mueller’s singing voice doesn’t sound anything like Carole King, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing how she has adopted nuances and shifts in her voice to replicate King’s plaintive, breathless style. It’s remarkable that the two lead Tony winners last year (the other being Audra McDonald for Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill) were in parts that required them to sing in the style of someone else. I missed out on seeing Audra’s performance live, but I’m certainly proud to say that I caught Ms. Mueller’s.

The show looks great, with terrific depth obtained via layers of horizontal platforms and vertical panels that rush down from the flies. Textures, patterns, and colors (why do cerulean and orange together evoke the ’60s?) work together to evoke the period, and it all works without appearing cliched or over the top. The show has some of the worst male wigs I’ve ever seen in a Broadway show, always looking like they don’t quite fit and might fall off at any moment. The sound is very good, though it was odd to see the baby being passed between characters far stage right but hear the baby’s cries from the center of the stage.

This show doesn’t play as a typical jukebox musical, if there is a typical one. It actually feels more like a play with music as all of the songs rise organically from the creative process of writing and performing them, not from expressing the emotions of the characters or for plot development. I especially liked hearing the same song sung different ways, a good measure for the artistic quality of a song being one open to being interpreted in different ways – all valid. I never had the feeling that they were trying to cram in as many recognizable songs as they could as I have felt with other jukebox musicals, and it was exciting to hear the collective “ahh” of the audience when the first few bars of a now classic song started to be played.

I have nothing but the best to say about the rest of the large cast as they all sing and dance beautifully. The show is funny when it needs to be (“God rest your father!” “Ma, he’s not dead – you’re just divorced.”), and appropriately tense (an impromptu game of strip poker). I hadn’t expected so much growth coming from the character of Carole (I don’t know anything of her real story, which I’m sure has been oversimplified in the show), and I enjoyed seeing how subtle changes in her hair and clothing would signal changes in her self esteem and age.

This show has legs, though I’m not thrilled with the title. It is more than “The Carole King Musical” – it is also the story of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann and that whole era of pop music. Still, it is Carole who emerges as triumphant at the end, so perhaps that justifies the title. I hope this show tours with a cast as talented (and attractive) as the one I saw on Broadway last night.

***/ out of ****

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