By Bill Hirschman
Validation – the affirmation that what you valued and invested yourself in does matter – is one of the most powerfully effective facets of both entertainment and art.
And that, we’ll venture, is the overwhelming virtue of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical whose national tour is enjoying a splendid visit to Broward Center starring the stunning Abby Mueller and a cast that glows with energy.
It is nearly impossible for this critic to put his prejudices inside a box and be as objective as this subjective job can allow. Carole King’s legacy and that of her buddy James Taylor are, indeed, the soundtrack of the most formative period of my life and what ensued to this day.
Most Boomers in the audience were goners from the opening fanfare of the overture. We laughed warmly recognizing the tentative chords of this song or the other in their early piano-only form, usually preceded by the composers shyly offering a line like “Well, this is just a first draft of something I’m trying out.…”
The crowd almost levitated from their seats as King, then her writing friends-competitors Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and finally producer Don Kirschner joined her in a transcendently arranged, “You’ve Got A Friend.”
When the fully-actualized Carole King finally emerges to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” as a powerful anthem, the crowd went nuts as they recognized the pieces of her human puzzle falling into their proper place.
By the time the cast made its curtain call with a foot-stomping version of “I Feel The Earth Move,” the usually-tamped down Tuesday crowd had long ago leapt to their feet and were singing along fervently as if it was a gospel paean in church.
This musical traces a small but high profile portion of the professional and personal evolution of the iconic singer-songwriter. The first act charts a shy 16-year-old ugly duckling from Brooklyn who pens a dozen 1960s chart-toppers you forgot she wrote through her partnership and marriage with the troubled Gerry Goffin.
The second act follows her discovery of self-worth, her growing independence and the development of her fresh voice culminating in the iconic album Tapestry. It’s about as gorgeous a transformation into a swan as any fiction writer could hope for. Even if you are not a Boomer, the journey echoes most of the audience’s own maturation. A subplot, required by any Broadway musical, is the parallel success of Mann and Weil.
Bookwriter Douglas McGrath, director Marc Bruni, musical supervisor Jason Howland and others on the creative team wove in many greatest hits into the fabric of an actual narrative arc (albeit sometime out of chronological order). For instance, when the unraveling Goffin recalls his troubled childhood, he relates it in “Up On The Roof.”
The difference is that Howland and orchestrator-arranger Steve Sitwell have funneled these well-known works through the prism of a Broadway musical. The songs intentionally sound close to the original recordings, but, in fact, they are louder, brighter, more technically sophisticated, augmented by a horn section, and often more thrilling than the most faithful jukebox revue could deliver.
Working hard to be fair, Beautiful is a bit strange. It uses classic Broadway musical structure and tropes to depict an introspective artist whose pop-rock and soft-pop milieu were that of someone uncomfortable in their own skin trying to find their self-worth. Boomers who grew up with Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Woodstock never expected in their youth that their rebellious you-adults-will-never-understand-us music would be played over supermarket loudspeakers. But they certainly never expected or sought their music, their lives and their culture appropriated for a Broadway musical.
It’s simultaneous disconcerting and intriguing to hear Sitwell and Howland ramp up recognizable if amped up early stanzas of “The Locomotion” and “On Broadway” into high-energy but completely reconceived and rearranged Broadway production dance numbers.
King’s 2012 memoir A Natural Woman reveals that what is on stage is (a) close to the truth if not perfectly accurate and (b) reflects only about 20 percent of her many changes and incarnations. Even so, there’s a lot of ground to cover, so McGrath’s book is saddled with the required exposition of any bio-musical which must cherrypick and compress details into an unrealistic procession that virtually no musical has ever done successfully. Only the earnest acting and the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief makes that palatable.
Besides structuring the tale, where McGrath succeeds so well is suffusing the show with the copious humor that he discovered interviewing the four major characters in real life. These are funny people who are given a raft of witty lines and rejoinders from McGrath’s imagination. It becomes a running joke (maybe running a bit too often) when someone nearly dismisses as second-rate some song that we immediately realize will be a monster hit.
For instance, Mann tentatively tries out on the piano in his reedy tenor the opening strains of what he thinks is a chancy atypical song. Weil says, “The problem is the key; it needs to be lower. And I know just who should sing it.” Then we hear the basement baritone-bass of Bill Medley and his brother as they bring the house down with a full-fledged “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling.”
It is one of the few times that the simple heartfelt versions of songs play better in the lush AM radio version depicted on stage. Songs like “Up On The Roof” and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” sound far better as unadorned demos on stage sung by the principals rather than the overproduced slick versions we heard on the 45s.
Mueller is an amazing find: An experienced actress, she is inheriting the role that won a Tony Award for her sister, Jessie, who is currently in the new musical Waitress. She has King’s off-kilter beauty, sort of like Peggy Olson in Mad Men crossed with Rosemary Clooney. Her voice is golden, sounding just enough like King not to be distracting but also not trying to be a Memorex copy which would also be distracting because King’s voice is inimitable. More importantly for musical theater, Mueller imbues the songs with even more emotion than the originals. When she sings “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” it is deeply affecting – as well as a textbook illustration of what a perfectly crafted pop song sounds like.
The devastatingly handsome Liam Tobin is her equal as the restless questing artist Goffin. Tobin makes Goffin’s eternal dissatisfaction credible, yet makes him an object of pity rather than contempt although he betrays King over and over. His voice can be angelic, especially with his heartfelt rendition of “Up On The Roof.”
Ben Funkhauser is the neurotic, hypochondriac composer nerd Barry Mann, played here as a classic Broadway comic relief foil. Even better is the lovely Becky Gulsvig creating the lyricist Cynthia Weil who is the smartest person in the room and who refuses to sacrifice her hard-won independence to the traditional marriage construct of the 1960s.
The show bowed in San Francisco in 2013 and on Broadway the following year to strong reviews and an ensuing wave of popularity. It won special notice including a Tony Award for Jessie Mueller who had been the only person to get any kudos from the 2011 Broadway revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.
(Local note: The plot includes several appearances by King’s mother, listed in the cast as Genie, but who many here remember as the late Eugenia Gingold, an actress, director, theater critic and Carbonell voter in Delray Beach.)
Throw in painfully accurate period costumes, a radioactive band, inventive visual elements, and a solid ensemble impersonating recognizable ’60s groups, and the total package for those of us of a certain age is a transporting experience.
The tour comes to the Arsht and the Kravis in February.
Beautiful – The Carole King Musical plays through May 10-22 from Broadway Across America at the Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday the 18th and Saturdays; 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time 2 ½ hours including one intermission. Tickets are $35-$150. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org
To read our feature story about the production, click here.