Describing Beautiful by comparing it to Jersey Boys seems unfair. Jersey Boys, of course, is a long running smash hit musical, and holding any new musical to the high standard of a major hit is asking a lot. But, while watching Beautiful, it is difficult not to think of the new Carole King musical as Jersey Boys Lite. That does not mean Beautiful is lacking in assets -- it has a terrific performance by Jessie Mueller as King and is filled with great songs, written by King and Gerry Goffin, as well as some from the team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. The result is an entertaining musical, but one that does not rise to the dramatic or emotional heights desired in a great show.
Beautiful tells Carole King’s story, starting as a successful songwriter while still a teenager, her rocky marriage to Goffin, and, ultimately, her reluctant emergence as a performer. The score is loaded with the hit songs written by King and loved by audiences well before they entered the theater. The musical has a good first act, a so-so first half of Act Two, then finally takes off for the last four songs, all major hits, as King embarks on her performing career.
So, what is the problem? First, King’s biography, while a remarkable success story, isn’t dramatically compelling. Yes, she endured a troubled marriage, but the story, as told in the musical, lacks theatrical excitement. Some of the drama that is present in Frankie Valli’s story in Jersey Boys just isn’t quite there for Beautiful. As great as the songs are, there are no pure showstoppers that help so much to elevate Jersey Boys. The song presentations in Beautiful are pleasing, but not thrilling. Douglas McGrath’s book efficiently tells the story, and Mark Bruni’s direction keeps the show moving along. It isn’t necessarily their fault that the underlying story falls a bit short of rising to a true level of heightened drama. But, they bear some responsibility in the books scenes coming off as an often formulaic exercise that mostly takes the audience from song to song.
All that said, Jessie Mueller shines as King, and continues her emergence as a true Broadway star. Mueller sings gloriously and conveys King’s shyness, lack of confidence, and emotional turmoil. She projects genuineness and warmth, and when her King comes into her own as a performing artist late in the musical, it provides some of the show’s most satisfying moments. Jake Epstein successfully pulls off the difficult trick of making Goffin both likable and troubled; Jarrod Spector and Anika Larsen are winning performers portraying Mann and Weil.
Ultimately, the beloved pop songs and Mueller compensate enough for the dramatic shortcomings to make Beautiful an enjoyable enough night of theater that will please many theatergoers and fans of King’s music. - James Miller
Mr. Miller is a former Showtime exec who has spent many an evening transfixed by the bright lights of Broadway and Off-Broadway.
Photo by Joan Marcus