"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" opened Sunday at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre with a sumptuous score and a lackluster story that fails to do something the singer-songwriter did proudly—feel honest.
It's not really a show about King—only about 10 years of her life. Many of the songs in it aren't even hers. And it ends just as she comes into her own, with the release of the groundbreaking "Tapestry." As you walk out, you might be wondering if that was a Carole King prequel musical. Is there a Part II?
None of this is the fault of Jessie Mueller, the rising Broadway star who plays King with genuine feeling and a lovely voice. This paint-by-numbers show would have been a whole lot better if it was just turned into a concert with Mueller singing King hits.
The show starts at King's 1971 Carnegie Hall concert—her first major appearance as a performer—and then shoots back in time to when she was a precocious 16-year-old college student trying to sell her songs to Tin Pan Alley.
It then pivots to her whirlwind courtship with Gerry Goffin, a talented and dashing lyricist who suffers from mental illness.
The couple went on to compose some of the greatest pop singles of the early 1960s, including The Shirelles' "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," the Drifters' "Up On the Roof," Bobby Vee's "Take Good Care of My Baby" and even one for their baby sitter, Little Eva, who recorded "The Locomotion."
"You and me. Number One," says Carole to her hubby.
Book writer Douglas McGrath then intertwines the story of King and Goffin with that of their friends and avid competitors, the songwriting team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, which opens another treasure trove of pop hits like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and "Walking in the Rain."
The injection of the other couple—a very good Anika Larsen as Weil and a nifty Jarrod Spector as Mann—creates more songs, but muddies the plot. The Carole King musical threatens to become the King-Goffin-Mann-Weil show.
Perhaps the best parts of the musical are when the fledgling songs by middle-class whites morph into full performances by the African-American bands and singers they're most associated with.
For "Some Kind of Wonderful," King and Goffin first play it on a piano, which then sweeps away to reveal four actors playing The Drifters in all their glory. These are the moments when director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince are at their best.
But the good times can't last: The era of composing teams are fading as singers begin writing for themselves. And, soon, King's life also unravels as her husband's instability grows.
Jake Epstein plays Goffin like a demented, caddish James Dean and he's jeered like a '30s villain. King, fed up, but always seemingly saintly, moves to California, where she'll record "Tapestry." She'll also marry three more times, have more children and keep making made superb music. But, hey, that's another musical. ("More Beautiful," perhaps?)
The final scene—a return to the '71 Carnegie Hall show—is also one of the worst. Goffin shows up, present in hand, to apologize and offer a prediction: "You're going all the way." It rings so false and melodramatic that you may gag.
Is there any lesson to be gleaned from this musical? Don't write songs for others? Don't marry men who are bipolar? Perhaps it's the same as the one from "Motown the Musical," the Broadway jukebox show playing nearby with a flimsy and idolizing book by record company founder Berry Gordy: Don't write honest musicals about living people without breaking some eggs.
And here's another: Put real musicians onstage. Nothing breaks the illusion in a show about pure musical talent than a whole bunch of actors fake-playing their instruments while the real ones are hidden in the pit.
Saddest of all, there are moments in the script where another, better musical is hiding. Like when King tells her friends about her new Los Angeles home: "It has big high ceilings and these great window seats and I told the girls they could get a cat." Fans of King will instantly know that the cat and window seat will play an indelible role on the cover of the album "Tapestry."
Too bad that's as close to something beautiful this show ever gets.