There’s nothing dutiful about “Beautiful.”
As jukebox musicals go – which is to say not usually very far – this engrossing retelling of the life and career of Carole King far outshines, outpaces and outperforms “Jersey Boys,” the previous record holder for formula-driven musical success. The show, fueled by Abby Mueller’s extraordinary performance in the lead role, opened its six-day run March 15 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, where ushers and audience members alike were dancing in the aisles by the end of the evening.
Too many jukebox shows suffer from a blind overreliance on their source material, leaving dialogue and plot construction in the hands of people whose talent for words pales in comparison to the composer’s talent for music. Not so in “Beautiful,” which thrives not only because of its head-spinning litany of hits by King, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, but because of Douglas McGrath’s stunning and whip-smart book.
Before the show, I had no specialized knowledge in King’s career beyond a surface-level familiarity with her work and her gift for conjuring a pleasant melody. Even so, it was for this reason that I was perhaps the perfect candidate for the production, which instantly inserts its hooks into audience members’ brains and sweeps them into an irresistible story of ambition, competition, heartbreak and the cost of success. It was formulaic only to the extent that the industry it represented was formulaic, and that formula breaks down as King’s creative spirit rises beyond the constraints of that industry and the relationships she formed there.
The production traces King’s career, beginning with the first song she sold to producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril) to her 1971 performance in Carnegie Hall following the release of her legendary album “Tapestry.” It explores King’s rocky marriage to her writing partner Goffin (Liam Tobin) and their healthy competition with fellow song-writing couple Mann (John Michael Dias, who alternates in the role with Ryan Farnsworth) and Weil (Becky Gulsvig).
The slyness and intelligence of the production is almost immediately evident. After 16-year-old Carol’s brief tête-à-tête with her mother (the comically gifted Suzanne Grodner, who alternates with Alaina Mills) over the economically shaky idea of being a songwriter, the show paints a riveting picture of Don Kirshner’s music factory. In an inspired medley of pop hits from the era accented by cheeky choreography from Josh Prince, we instantly understand the swirling universe of formulaic pop perfection into which King is eagerly entering.
After that, the production is off and running, pausing just briefly enough to allow King and her companions to drop little bits of humor and romance. This is where McGrath’s book shines especially bright, letting its characters telegraph three-dimensional personalities in the space of a few syllables, according to the same dictum that echoes in the ears of creative people everywhere: “The songs may sound simple, but simple is hard.”
“Beautiful” also seems to always trot out the perfect song for the perfect moment, whether it is the Shirelles’ performance of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” at a particularly challenging emotional time for King, or “You’ve Got a Friend” as she departs for a new life in California.
There were parts in the first act that came across as too mechanical, with the setup and execution of each song too closely mirroring one another. But as that formula waned in the second act, it’s clear the design was intentional to emphasize the production-line feel of Kishner’s factory. The period-perfect reenactments of those performances from musical acts like the Drifters, the Shirelles and Neil Sedaka lent enough charm to put those concerns in the back seat. That’s thanks largely to Prince’s choreography and excellent costumes by Alejo Vietti.
Derek McLane’s marvelous and simple set, which looks like a stack of retro speakers and tape recorders arrayed into a wallpaper pattern that screams ’60s, looks brilliant under Peter Kaczorowski’s expert and era-specific lighting design.
None of this would have registered without Mueller’s irresistible performance as King. Her ebullience was anything but practiced, her addictive singing voice anything but rehearsed, her acting nothing but genuine. Mueller, like the show she leads, was close to flawless.
4 stars (out of four)
What: “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”
When: Through Sunday
Where: Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets: $35 to $80
Info: 847-1410 or sheas.org