Sometimes all theatre is meant to do is make you feel good. Or in this case feel beautiful. I KNOW how cliché that sounds. Mea Culpa. Deal with it.
This is a kind of romp through the life of Carole King who, for a lot of us, is an icon. We grew up with her iconic songs about loss: It’s Too Late, love: A Natural Woman; and hope: Beautiful. We were in our 20’s when her first album was released. Tapestry was an album that we soaked up as if we were dry ground and King’s music (with Joni Mitchell and James Taylor on backup vocals, thank you very much) were a soft spring rain. She was the real deal. Unadorned. Vulnerable and raucous. Wistful and certain. Regretful and celebratory.
Little did any of us know (or care) that this 29 year-old woman was a divorced mother of two who was so smart that she skipped to grades to arrive at college as a 16 year old and sold her first song that same year, and was short-sighted enough to get pregnant and married by the time she was 18. Turns out the man she married was Gerry Goffin who collaborated with her on the very tunes that we grew up listening to (all the hits before the Beatles that didn’t come out of Motown): Up On The Roof, Take Good Care Of My Baby, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day. The list is ridiculously long.
This production fills in many of the pre-Tapestry details, and it works as a background to the musical numbers mostly because of Jessie Mueller – who you may remember stole the show when she appeared in On A Clear Day opposite Hary Connick, Jr. Mueller is a total pleasure and manages to bring home the essence of King but still keep her own self centered and visible. It is a nifty piece of juggling. In addition she is able to track Ms. King’s vocal transition over a 13 year period. She moves from a Brooklyn teenager to a wife and mother to a woman sailing into her 30’s living in Los Angeles and traveling under her own steam.
Mueller is more than ably supported by Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin), Jeb Brown (Don Kirshner), Jarrod Specter (Barry Mann) and Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil) who form the inner circle that surrounded and nurtured King until she set out as a solo artist. And WHO KNEW that there were women writing songs in the 50’s and 60’s??? Not me.As to the music – while it is a total pleasure to hear, it is so over-produced (with the exception of the intimate song writing sessions) that it will drive your sugar level up to the danger zone. The poor guys who portray The Drifters are given dance moves that are from another planet. Sorry folks – it just wasn’t that way. It feels like the producers didn’t trust that we would be happy seeing the old doo-wop moves that were little more than side steps and sweeping glides. Why they felt the need to tart up these numbers is a mystery.
As it is this entire production is really a concert played out on an extraordinary set by Derek McLean, lit and dressed to nines by Peter Kaczorowski and Alejo Vietti.
It’s about the music, and only about the music that reaches us on a level we cannot verbalize. It’s a heart and gut thing where we are at the center of our own selves. And at the center of all that music is Ms. King given over to us by the stupendous Jessie Mueller. Long may they BOTH rein.
BEAUTIFUL – Book by Douglas McGrath; words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil; directed by Marc Bruni
WITH: Jessie Mueller (Carole King), Jake Epstein (Gerry Goffin), Anika Larsen (Cynthia Weil), Jarrod Spector (Barry Mann), Jeb Brown (Don Kirshner) and Liz Larsen (Genie Klein).
Choreography by Josh Prince; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Alejo Vietti; lighting by Peter Kaczorowski; sound by Brian Ronan; hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe; makeup design by Joe Dulude II; orchestrations, vocal and music arrangements by Steve Sidwell; music supervision and additional music arrangements by Jason Howland; production stage manager, Peter Hanson; production manager, Juniper Street Productions, Inc.; music coordinator, John Miller; executive producers, Sherry Kondor and Christine Russell; general manager, the Charlotte Wilcox Company. Presented by Paul Blake, Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Jeffrey A. Sine, Richard A. Smith, Mike Bosner, Harriet N. Leve/Elaine Krauss, Terry Schnuck, Orin Wolf, Patty Baker/Good Productions, Roger Faxon, Larry Magid, Kit Seidel, Lawrence S. Toppall, Fakston Productions/Mary Solomon, William Court Cohen, John Gore, BarLor Productions, Matthew C. Blank, Tim Hogue, Joel Hyatt, Marianne Mills, Michael J. Moritz, Jr., StylesFour Productions, Brunish & Trinchero and Jeremiah J. Harris. At the Stephen Sondheim Theater, 124 West 43rd Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, telecharge.com. Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes.