New York City Theater
Stephen Sondheim Theater
Just because a story is true doesn’t make it compelling. Case in point: “Beautiful,” the tuneful but fatally clichéd new musical about songwriter Carole King. It’s all here: upbringing by single mom, early desire to become songwriter, teen marriage to writing partner Gerry Goffin, two children, marital trouble on one track, paralleled by successful career on the other.
What might have added up to a journey through thick and thin is just thin. Perhaps aspiring to be a Brooklyn “Jersey Boys,” another jukebox musical but one that peppers its heartbreak rise-to-riches story with a bit of suspense, “Beautiful,” with a book by Doug McGrath, wends its way from Flatbush to Carnegie Hall with crushing predictability.
Supposedly, King’s catalogue – an impressive one – reflects her growing knowledge of her talents and life. So we go from “So Far Away” (dreams of success) to “A Natural Woman” (freedom and independence). Fair enough: but the songs are not truly integrated into the libretto. Rather, they’re performed as set pieces plopped into dialogue scenes.
The evening ticks off “moments” without driving forward. It all seems so numbing, so without irony, so without depth, reaching a point of “who cares.” At times the main focus shifts to the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, whose courtship and marriage is the reverse of the King-Goffin bust-up.
As King, Jessie Mueller is pert yet determined, projecting a charming modesty even in the face of success. Her sweet-natured, self-effacing performance goes far in clueing us into King’s ability to pour herself into her songs. As Goffin, Jake Epstein is unafraid to be unlikable, while Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector make Weil and Mann considerably more forceful and memorable than King and Goffin. Liz Larsen as King’s mother and Jeb Brown as her producer add much needed humor and spice.
The rest of the cast rocks in imitations of The Drifters, The Shirelles, Neil Sedaka and The Righteous Brothers. Josh Prince’s choreography is spirited and director Marc Bruni does what he can with the gossamer script.
But oh, those songs: from King-Goffin’s ”It Might As Well Rain Until September” to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “One Fine Day,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof” and “Natural Woman” to Weil-Mann’s “On Broadway” and “Walking in the Rain.” Undeniably exhilarating, they deserve a better show than the bland “Beautiful.”
David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 19, 2014