I found myself pleasantly surprised by Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Admittedly, not often a fan of jukebox musicals, which I have found to be formulaic and predictable, I was both moved and inspired by the new musical about the life of renowned singer/songwriter Carole King.
Much of the musical’s impact is due to the wonderful performance given by Jessie Mueller, an actress whose star has been on the rise for several years. Playing King, Mueller gives a performance of both warmth and depth, providing a heartfelt sincerity to King’s struggles and achievements as she rises from a small office in the Brill Building to the stage at Carnegie Hall.
Directed by Marc Bruni, the musical moves at a brisk pace, peppered with performances of King’s well-known songs – “Up On the Roof,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” to name just a few of the densely packed song list.
Ignorant of much of King’s life prior to seeing Beautiful, I felt a great deal of respect for her survival in spite of various challenges, including an unexpected teenage pregnancy and an unfaithful husband and resulting heartbreak. During the scene when her husband, Gerry Goffin (played by Jake Epstein) informs he he wants an open marriage, a singing group is performing the song “One Fine Day” in the background, and Mueller performs an aching refrain. While I knew this was coming – the technique was clear – I was surprised by how saddened I felt.
I was intrigued by how the women in Beautiful would be portrayed, given the political and social climate during which the musical is set – namely, King’s collaboration with her husband and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen, in a strong performance)’s staunch refusal to marry and reluctance to even move in with her songwriting partner Barry Mann (an endearing and solid Jarrod Spector). I admired the determination and focus of both of the women, despite the predictable nuances of the script: Carole wants to live in the suburbs in New Jersey with their children while Gerry longs for life in the city, enjoying its nightlife.
When Carole decides to leave her husband, informing him, “The girls deserve something better. And you know what? So do I,” I found myself quietly cheering in the audience, along with other women. While the lines were predictable, Mueller elevated them – and everything else in the show – to surprising heights that are sustained throughout the show.