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Beautiful, the Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath
Words and Music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Directed by Marc Bruni
The Fox Theatre
February 23, 2016

Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller, Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig Photo by Joan Marcus Beautiful National Tour

Curt Bouril, Liam Tobin, Abby Mueller, Ben Fankhauser, Becky Gulsvig
Photo by Joan Marcus
Beautiful North American Tour

Carole King is a living legend. First as a songwriter and then as a  singer-songwriter, she made a name for herself in the music industry with many memorable hits. Even today, many people who don’t recognize her name will know her songs. Beautiful, The Carole King Musical tells the story of how she came to fame, as well as giving us a picture of the developing music scene in the 60s and 70s. The show was a big hit and is still running on Broadway, and now the North American Tour has brought this vibrant show to St. Louis, with an excellent cast and a whole lot of energy.

Although I’m generally skeptical of “jukebox” musicals, I had heard great things about this one, as well as comparisons to one of the best of this type of show, Jersey Boys.  Beautiful has a lot in common with Jersey Boys, actually, in terms of its having a strong book telling the story of several important figures in the history of music. The tone is even more upbeat and optimistic, however, although it does cover some difficult times in King’s life as well. King (Abbey Mueller) is obviously the central figure, but this isn’t only her story. Her life entwines closely with that of her college sweetheart, songwriting partner, and eventual husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), as well as those of songwriting colleagues, friends, and friendly rivals Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser).  The story follows King from when she was still a teenager living with her mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner), to her early days as a songwriter for publisher Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), to her heyday as part of a songwriting duo with Goffin, to marital struggles and changes in the country’s musical tastes, and finally to her rise in fame as a singer, culminating in the release of her most famous album, Tapestry.

The story is told in generally linear format, after a small prologue scene set during King’s Carnegie Hall concert that also ends the show. The story is punctuated with Goffin/King songs and Mann/Weil songs as well as a few other popular songs of the era. Groups like the Drifters, the Shirelles, and the Righteous Brothers are represented here as well, telling the story of King’s career and rocky partnership with the charming but unpredictable Goffin. There’s also a story of the developing relationship of Mann and Weil as a contrast to King and Goffin’s tumultuous marriage. The song performances are a highlight, with famous hits such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day” given dramatic settings that serve to advance the plot as well as celebrate that period in music history. It’s fascinating to watch as the songs are developed, and especially as King introduces some of her more well-known solo hits later in the show, such as “It’s Too Late”, “Beautiful”, and an especially endearing staging of “You’ve Got a Friend”.

The casting of King is essential, and Abby Mueller is an ideal choice for the role. With a voice remiscent of King’s without sounding like an impression, and an engaging personality, warmth and energy, Mueller plays King’s growth from a naive young aspiring songwriter to a more seasoned artist and performer extremely well. She carries the emotional weight of her personal story with admirable truth, as well. She’s well-matched with Tobin as the charismatic, increasingly troubled Goffin. Gulsvig as Weil is a standout, with a strong voice and spunky personality, and Fankhouser is in excellent voice as Mann. There are also winning performances from Bouril as the supportive music publisher Kirshner, and Grodner as King’s stubbornly devoted mother. There’s a strong ensemble as well, playing a variety of roles from famous musical acts to session players and more.

The time and place, as well as the transition between the various periods of King’s life, is evoked well by means of Derek McLane’s versatile set, with set pieces that slide on and off stage as needed to represent King’s various homes, the music publishing office, Carnegie Hall and beyond. There are also colorful, detailed costumes by Alejo Vietti, ranging from every day 50’s, 60’s and 70’s fashions to the more glamorous, glitzy costumes of the various performers. The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski effectively sets the mood and scene, as well.

The formative years of popular music are well-represented in this energetic, well-constructed and impressively staged musical. It’s about Carole King, and much of the show’s appeal centers on Mueller’s outstanding portrayal, but there’s a lot more here as well. It’s a story not only of music makers, but of the music itself, and the music is gloriously performed and presented. It’s a brilliant celebration of the life and work of a well-known, much-lauded singer and songwriter.

Abby Mueller Photo by Joan Marcus Beautiful North American Tour

Abby Mueller
Photo by Joan Marcus
Beautiful North American Tour

 The North American Tour of Beautiful, the Carole King Musical runs at the Fox Theatre until March 6, 2016.

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