Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Beautiful, the Carole King biomusical, is stuffed with one incredible song after another. The result is an entertaining and enjoyable evening. Would it be too much to wish it were also good?

Jeb Brown, Jake Epstein, Jessie Mueller,
Jarrod Spector, Anika Larsen
Photo: Joan Marcus
The usual problem with biomusicals is that most people's lives don't provide a satisfying dramatic arc; however, Carole King's life does. The show starts with King (the superb Jessie Mueller) triumphantly performing at Carnegie Hall. We then go into a flashback, of course, and over the next two and a half hours or so, we see King grow from a preternaturally gifted 16-year-old to a harried and still preternaturally gifted mother and wife to an independent and, yes, preternaturally gifted singer-songwriter. The potential drama occurs in her challenging relationship with her writing partner and husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), whose demons destroy their marriage and take a bite out of his sanity as well. Unfortunately, Douglas McGrath's disappointing book fails to capitalize on these dramatic opportunities and instead gives us thinly drawn characters and undeveloped relationships. Beautiful aims to be musical comedy rather than musical drama.

The show's humor comes in two flavors. The first is setup, setup, lame punchline; setup, setup, lame punchline; and so on. Most of the punchlines rely on the audience's knowledge of the songs, and they are obvious from a mile away. With your eyes closed. And ear plugs in.

The other flavor of humor, people bantering with one another, is much more successful. The relationship between King's good friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (whose musical output is almost as impressive as King's) includes much warm teasing that is genuinely funny. It helps a great deal that Jarrod Spector is playing Mann and the amazing Anika Larsen is playing Weil. (Larsen shares Eve Arden's ease, presence, and comfort with a laugh line. And if you don't know Eve Arden's work, let me assure you that that is a serious compliment.)

Of course the show is largely about the wonderful, wonderful songs, one right after another. Take Good Care of my Baby. Will You Love Me Tomorrow. Up on the Roof. On Broadway. You've Lost That Loving Feeling. Pleasant Valley Sunday. We Gotta Get out of This Place. (You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman. Treat after treat after treat. And each and every one is well-sung.

Director Marc Bruni, Music Supervisor and Arranger Jason Howland, and Orchestrator/Arranger Steve Sidwell, along with the performers, have found a sweet spot where the songs are not slavish recreations of the hit versions but also are not overly changed. Instead, the songs are just different enough to make them distinct and new while retaining the flavor of the period and the originals. It's a nice job.

Bruni's staging is dynamic--perhaps too much so. The snappy pacing is effective in presenting the excitement and growth of rock and roll, and it is fun to have the years fly by with the versatile scenery quickly morphing into the Brill Building, King's childhood home, and so on. However, the character and dramatic scenes, such as they are, need more room to breathe. Between McGrath's writing and Bruni's direction, only King is truly three-dimensional. We never get to know Goffin well enough to feel his pain. That Weil and Mann are two-dimensional is no problem. They're Fred and Ethel, and no more is needed from them. But Goffin has to be vivid and real for Beautiful to work as more than an amazing concert interrupted by book scenes.

Jeb Brown is likeable as King's publisher Don Kirshner, and Liz Larsen does what she can with the sitcom-level writing she has been given as King's mother. The ensemble is excellent, and they deserve individual entries in the cast list specifying who plays Little Eva and who plays the Righteous Brothers and so on. The costumes, by Alejo Vietti, are attractive, appropriate, and clever.

For all of its faults, Beautiful is a fun night in the theatre, highlighted by the tremendous work of Jessie Mueller and Anika Larsen and that kick-ass ensemble.

(rush ticket, $40, R11)

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