By Christine Howey When it comes to jukebox musicals, Jersey Boys is the leader of the pack in terms of propulsive momentum (the Boys evolve from convicts to superstars) and addictive '60s-era rock-pop sounds. So it makes sense that someone seeking another success like that would want to, um, emulate the show that got it all so right.
Such is the case with Beautiful, The Carole King Musical now at the Connor Palace Theater at Playhouse Square. The author of the book, Douglas McGrath, has seen the golden land where Frankie Valli reigns, and is clearly determined to mine those hills for every nugget. As a result, Beautiful is essentially Jersey Boys with a big ol' estrogen patch that replaces the boys' testosterone-driven drive and competitiveness. It then delves into the insecurities and traditional domestic desires of a young Jewish girl from Brooklyn who just happens to be a kickass songwriter.
The result is a bead-stringing process of covering a whole bunch of hits from the past while injecting some humanity into the proceedings. And even though you can see the show straining to touch all the bases, the music and some interesting performances win the day.
After opening with a glimpse of King's debut at Carnegie Hall, the show operates in flashback mode as it traces the journey of this talented songwriter and singer. As is true with many of these rags-to-riches stories, it seems like King's path was foreordained in many ways. For example, as a teenager she just happened to date Neil Sedaka in high school and then started writing songs with Paul Simon.
While those contacts aren't spelled out specifically in the play, and even without our 20/20 hindsight, it's clear that Carole is on a different level. She and her songwriting partner (and soon-to-be husband) Gerry Goffin glom onto a tiny office at music producer Don Kirshner's song factory. It's across the street from the famed Brill Building, where a flood of popular American tunes were first picked out on pianos by Johnny Mercer and Burt Bacharach.
To flesh out the story, two other songwriters are introduced in the persons of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil ("We Gotta Get Out Of This Place," "On Broadway"), and they become best friends with King and Goffin. Thus, we have a faux Four Seasons quartet that we can follow through their ups and ups and ups and a couple downs.
That's the thing with musicals such as Beautiful — you always know another big hit is minutes (or seconds) away, so there's a serious lack of tension and an absence of any dramatic arc. But who cares, when you're listening to Carole King classics such as "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Pleasant Valley Sunday" and "It's Too Late"?
Fortunately, this production is studded with fine performances that manage to inject some real emotion in the small gaps between blockbuster songs. As Carole, Abby Mueller captures a sound close to King's and handles her character's vulnerabilities with honesty and charm. In fact, you almost wish this young woman could just settle down in the suburbs (her dream) and be happy there. Mueller comes by her talent honestly, since her younger sister Jessie won the 2014 Tony Award for the same role in the original Broadway production.
She is ably supported by Liam Tobin as the young and impulsive Gerry. He and Mueller somehow fashion a relationship that feels real and flawed, and it forms the heart of the show. Most of the laugh lines are supplied by Ben Frankhauser as hypochondriac Barry, constantly complaining about his sinuses or this and that as he pounds out the hits. On this night, Betty Gulsvig was sharp and funny as Cynthia, but she has now left the run. Indeed, this cast has several roles that are being shuffled among various members of the company.
As directed and choreographed by Marc Bruni and Josh Prince respectively, the chronology of King's glorious career is mapped out with slick precision. This is aided by Derek McLane's scenic design that utilizes tall sliding panels configured quickly to represent a multitude of locations.
Sure, it's a pre-fab storyline and there are some clunky references to a few points in the biography. For instance, the fact that King and Goffin wrote a hit song that was performed by their babysitter (!) is dropped in with forced casualness when they ask their nanny: "Who do you think this song 'The Locomotion' would be good for ... Little Eva?" Didn't see that one coming.
But hey, if you love the music from the '60s and '70s and you'd like to see a take on that era from a female perspective, Beautiful is gorgeous in all the ways that matter.Beautiful
Through April 17 at Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.com