Carole King seemed like the type of person who was downright sheepish about her fame and her talent. She is a funky, buffoonish kind of gal, a person that is quick to drop a self-deprecating joke on herself, yet was brilliant in her command of the stage, and her abilities to transform others with her slick compositions.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is an absolute powerhouse production, currently running at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre before heading to Broadway. It’s grace and charm lies in Jessie Mueller’s glowing portrayal of King, and is another in the long line of hits in the jukebox musical genre, albeit one with a heart of gold and with happy and sad tunes to match.
The story follows King’s early days of growing up in Brooklyn, taking piano lessons and craving a life of songwriting for the biggest stars of the music scene. She’s delightfully precocious, meeting up with future composition partner Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein) at Queens College, and dives into a short romance that leads to a baby. In the midst of being fledgling songwriters, the duo is pushed hard by stiff competition Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and bubbly charmer Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Weil and Mann work hard yet seem to always be a step behind the skills of Goffin and King.
While their work shoots to the top of the charts thanks to groups like The Shirelles and Bobby Vee, King’s pregnancy from Goffin sends the couple into deep issues often seen in those who marry young – Goffin’s infidelity and irresponsibility, and his deep desires to maintain relevancy in the ever-changing world of music production.
Where this production is at its finest is in the fact that director Marc Bruni and writer Douglas McGrath allow the audience to experience King’s magic through King’s eyes. She almost has this Harry Potter-like quality to her – extremely ordinary and self-deprecating while being the possessor of amazing powers. It is Mueller’s performance and nuance that allows this character to breathe fully and live, a pathos-driven turn of joy, pain, despair and redemption.
Other portrayals were extremely effective. Jeb Brown’s interpretation of Don Kirshner was a breath of fresh air, a music publisher who ran the Brill Building (Beautifully scenic designed by Derek Mclane) with plenty of heart. While he drove hard and wanted successes, gone was that sense of absolute jerkdom often seen in these types of characters.
Larsen’s Weil certainly showed a healthy heaping of pragmatism, much to the chagrin of Spector’s Mann. Together, they provided a wonderfully playful duo that might have been a bit confounding in their romance, but certainly showed the antithesis of Goffin’s and King’s union.
Epstein is extremely well-presenced, a charmer who has the ability to make a girl swoon. His line to King during one of her many insecure episodes when talking about their baby – “I hope we have a girl and she looks just like you” – is heartwarming and hopeful; However, his character sometimes seems to be written as a device in moments. There are a handful of times when the louse goes from zero to douchebag in 3.2 seconds. And it is no coincidence that when he is at his worst, we love King even more. A more honest and organic approach from the writing would have certainly helped in these moments to give him more depth.
While the opening act was loaded with glitz and glamour with all the most beautiful dresses and sharp dance moves, where the show positively takes off is in act two, when we are focused on music by Carole King that was for Carole King. The music from the wonderful album “Tapestry” is the lifeblood that courses through the audience, and easily the most joyous and hopeful part of the show. That and the fact that act two is loaded with warm humor with some wonderfully joyful laughs, something I really didn’t expect.
What stands out about King’s music is how it positively speaks to the listener. And what stands out even more in the context of the play is that King, for all her fame and success, had problems with her husband like so many. She just wanted to raise her daughters right like so many. She was afraid to sing in front of so many.
The organic way her music came through the record player transcended so many who also wondered if they would still be loved tomorrow, and that premise comes through beautifully in “Beautiful.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SHNSF presents “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
Book by Douglas McGrath. Songs by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Word: Songs like “So Far Away,” “It’s Too Late,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” are captivating and fresh in this musical bio. Mueller’s performance as the legend King makes the show move under your feet.
Stars: 3.5 out of 4
Through Oct. 20th
The Curran Theatre
445 Geary St., San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $50 to $210
For tickets, call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com
Previews begin Nov. 21st
The Stephen Sondheim Theatre
124 W. 43rd St., New York, NY
For tickets, visit www.beautifulonbroadway.com