Jukebox musicals. Such a phrase makes those who love musical theatre shudder with a wave of disgust, as it exemplifies the devolution of the art form. Where the best musicals use carefully crafted music to advance the story and heighten the emotional moments, jukebox musicals simply jam familiar tunes into a threadbare plot to please the masses and make a buck.
But I'd heard Beautiful - The Carole King Musical was different. Even though the show celebrates her work and the work of her direct contemporaries, it also explores the life of a woman whose talent and heart drove her forward, even if reluctantly so.
King never wanted to be a star -- she simply wanted to write music. No: she felt compelled to write it. And she also wanted a family. And, like most working mothers, King faced a constant struggle and negotiation to keep both sides moving forward. Luckily -- at least at the beginning -- King's songwriting partner was also her husband, Gerry Goffin. But while the couple penned many chart-topping hits, including "The Loco-Motion" and "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," Goffin's wondering eye and restless soul caused an end to the relationship -- both professionally and personally.
But the unraveling of their marriage ultimately empowered King to weave "Tapestry" -- her debut solo album which finally moved King into the spotlight and redirected the course of her career.
The show demands a lead performance that inspires empathy without becoming a victim, and envokes the essence of King without becoming an imitation. As Carole, Chicago's very own Abby Mueller does us proud. Those who follow such things may know that Abby's sister, Jessie Mueller, created the role in the original Broadway production, and went on to win the Tony Award for her performance. But in this first-rate tour, Abby makes it her own, masterfully walking the line of honoring King's integrity and resilience without impersonating her. It's a breakthrough performance for the hardworking actress. And as King's second half, Liam Tobin perfectly captures Goffin's deep inner conflict and passion.
There's an interesting B storyline here as well. Powerhouse songwriting team (and real-life couple) Cynthia Weil and Berry Mann frequently crossed paths with King and Goffin -- and competed to get that elusive hit single recorded by the hot new group. The four also served as an internal support system, looking out for each other and helping make a professional connection when they felt the other team's writing style would pair more strongly with the artist. As the sassy Weil, Becky Gulsvig, who charmed in the First National Tour of Legally Blonde a few years ago, makes a strong impression. Ben Fankhauser also does well as her neurotic foil.
A nimble ensemble cast keeps the action moving forward, but not frantically so. What I most admire about this show is that it's not afraid to take time to explore a song. Where most musicals crafted around a writing team's origin story rapidly cut from song to song as if the playlist was crated by a teen with ADD (Jersey Boys, I'm looking at you), Beautiful often presents the full song, or a ample enough sampling, which allows you revel in the lyrics and melody.
Credit should be given to director Marc Bruni, who keeps the story human-level, focusing on the relationships that created the music we so love. But ultimately, this is Carole's story -- and we root for her big time at the end.
"Beautiful - The Carole King Musical" plays through February 21 at the Oriental Theatre. More info here >