The ripple went through the Belk Theater audience midway through Act 1, as soon as the woman at the piano bench sang the first tremulous line: “Tonight you’re mine … completely …”
And you knew theatergoers who sighed with pleasure weren’t thinking about “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” They were remembering the day they fell in love or walked along the beach or maybe even rode to elementary school while listening to The Shirelles’ plaintive hit.
This show may be the most effective jukebox musical I’ve ever seen. Instead of mining one performer’s catalog, it weds Douglas McGrath’s book to songs by the teams of King and Gerry Goffin and their friends, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.
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It’s a sonic kaleidoscope of the 1960s: The Shirelles, Drifters, Chiffons and Righteous Brothers, among others, do beloved tunes, so we never tire of a single singer or sound. Sometimes the composer-lyricists sing their own numbers, in the kinds of big Broadway voices the real songwriters never possessed.
The show can’t be called “The Carole King Story,” because it takes her only up to the release of “Tapestry,” which topped the U.S. album chart in 1971. At 29, most of her hits were behind her, though as a writer rather than a performer.
Abby Mueller has the three things needed to embody the title role: A Brooklyn accent and demeanor, an extraordinary ability to coordinate faux piano-playing with the keyboard in the pit, and a voice that sometimes echoes King’s alto and sometimes soars past King’s limitations without seeming showy.
The show takes her from 16 to 29, and Mueller plays a teen, young adult and grown woman equally well. In this version, her partnership with Goffin led to dozens of hits, two children and a decade of married angst, as he philandered and dealt with what seems to be bipolar disorder. (Through all of this, Liam Tobin earns some sympathy as Goffin.)
To keep the drama from swamping us, McGarth uses a trick that has worked since “Showboat”: He introduces a humorous second couple, germ-phobic Mann and marriage-phobic Weil. As they pair up musically and romantically, Ben Fankhauser’s Mann and Becky Gulsvig’s Weil offer wisecracking irony and let the show work in hits of a different kind: “Walking in the Rain,” say, or “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
“Beautiful” couldn’t work half as well without the brisk pacing of director Marc Bruni, the ’60s-style choreography by Josh Prince or the tight ensemble. (Especially impressive: The snappy recreation of The Drifters by Josh A. Dawson, Paris Nix, Jay McKenzie and Noah J. Ricketts.)
You won’t be surprised to learn the piece takes liberties with history: Goffin had 10 songs in the top 100 with other writers (none of whom we see) during his partnership with King, and all these people owed a lot of their prestige to producer Phil Spector. (He’s in prison for murder now, so nobody brings him up.)
But when you hear great songs delivered with such commitment, you won’t quibble. You may even interpret them differently: The blithe “One Fine Day” and goofy “Chains” take on dark overtones, because Mueller belts them as King’s marriage disintegrates. Who knew these pop tunes went so deep?