Theater review: ‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ glistens

Abby Mueller inhabits the role of Carole King in "Beautiful," which plays the Fox through Sunday. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Abby Mueller inhabits the role of Carole King in “Beautiful,” which plays the Fox through Sunday. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It’s fitting that “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” introduces the earthy singer-songwriter to the audience as she sits alone, center stage, at a piano, the musician and her instrument bonded.

This is, after all, her story, and while it isn’t always a feel-good romp, it is always bracingly honest.

The musical, which plays at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, earned a pair of Tony Awards in 2014, one for Broadway star Jessie Mueller for her potent portrayal of King.

For the national tour, Mueller’s sister, Abby, inherits the role. She, like her sibling, is a fundamentally stronger singer than King — whose reluctance to reposition herself from songwriter-behind-closed-doors to performer is a subtle undercurrent — but Abby Mueller captures the quirky nuances of King’s voice and her halting cadences beautifully.

The book by Douglas McGrath spotlights King’s ascension from a 16-year-old Brooklynite living with a mother who considers songwriting a frivolous career (“Girls don’t write music, they teach it,” is her version of wisdom) to one of pop music’s most revered songwriters.

But despite the professional success, King’s early career was pockmarked with personal speed bumps.

Her meet-cute with Gerry Goffin (Andrew Brewer) at Queens College indicated a match made in musical heaven between the blossoming songwriter and the sensitive playwright who quickly became her first husband.

For sure, the pair produced dozens of hits in the 1960s for acts including the Drifters (“Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Up on the Roof”), the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) and their babysitter, Eva “Little Eva” Boyd (“The Loco-Motion”).

But while “Beautiful” is an unabashed jukebox musical, the only significant weakness in the show is the endless parade of performances by the pop acts that took those songs by King and Goffin — and pals/songwriting rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil — to the top of the charts.

From "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" - (l to r) Curt Bouril ( Don Kirshner ), Ben Fankhauser ( Barry Mann ), Abby Mueller ( Carole King ) and Becky Gulsvig ( Cynthia Weil ). Photo: Joan Marcus

From “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” – (l to r) Curt Bouril ( Don Kirshner ), Ben Fankhauser ( Barry Mann ), Abby Mueller ( Carole King ) and Becky Gulsvig ( Cynthia Weil ). Photo: Joan Marcus

The staging, with its gliding panels and elegantly shaded lighting, easily adapts to this musical carousel, and even hammy numbers from the Righteous Brothers (the Mann/Weil classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”) are presented with zip and polish.

But the procession deducts valuable time from the core four, and any minutes taken away from Mann and Weil — played with charming Woody Allen neurosis by Ben Fankhauser and steely spunk by Becky Gulsvig — as well as Mueller and the handsome, sturdy Brewer is a mistake.

The second act of “Beautiful” digs deeper, as Goffin’s infidelity and shaky mental state consume King as she desperately tries to keep her family intact (a move to the New Jersey suburbs, shockingly, does not make Goffin a better husband).

Brewer is particularly effective as he spirals from a grinning flirt to an unapologetic cad prone to fits of paranoia about becoming irrelevant in the music industry. And when Mueller choke-sobs her way through “One Fine Day” and a reprise of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” it will simultaneously give you chills and break your heart.

Many of the songs that anchored King’s landmark 1971 solo album, “Tapestry,” feel shoehorned in during the last chunk of the show. But when Mueller extracts the raw emotion from “It’s Too Late” and she, Fankhauser and Gulsvig unleash the delicate melancholy of “You’ve Got a Friend,” that sense of haste hardly matters.

If King were a flashier personality, it would be expected that “Beautiful” would close with a “she is woman, hear her roar” type of finale. Indeed, the show will leave you with a feeling of uplift — it is, after all, a musical full of pop songs. But more befitting King’s musical legacy, it will prompt you to pause and ponder while clapping your hands.


THEATER REVIEW

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”

Grade: A-

7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday (May 25-26); 8 p.m. Friday (May 27); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (May 28); 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday (May 29). $30-$150. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, www.foxtheatre.org.

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