If certain musical phrases fail to raise any tingles on the back of your neck — such as “stayed in bed all morning just to pass the time” or “it would be so fine to see your face at my door” or “you just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running” — well, then, I have to ask: Where the heck were you in 1971?
Not born yet? Okay, acceptable excuse. For some of the rest of us, though, these are melody lines in the soundtracks of our souls, seared there in our youth by rock-and-roll troubadour Carole King. Those songs are summoned again, in all their exuberant permutations of longing, bonding and loving, in the highly enjoyable jukebox show “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” making a three-week stop in the Kennedy Center Opera House.
That a musical showcasing the recording artist of the Grammy-winning album “Tapestry” comes to town in the midst of a regionwide theater festival celebrating the voices of female writers feels especially apt. As a writer and a performer, King is a voice worth a whole musical. Her “story” may not be quite as compelling as her talent: Book writer Doug McGrath didn’t have much dramatic material to work with, other than the tumult caused by the serial philandering of King’s manic songwriting partner and erstwhile husband, Gerry Goffin. But there’s still ample evidence, in her remarkable contributions to rock-and-roll history, to justify both 2
In the guise here, too, of actress Abby Mueller, King is an appealingly self-effacing center of attention, a driven city girl sure of her gifts but insecure about her charms, and propelled into marriage, motherhood and show business at an age when her peers were picking out prom dresses. Oddly enough, Mueller’s younger sister, Jessie Mueller, originated the leading role in “Beautiful” on Broadway in 2013 and won a Tony. Abby’s follow-up in the part reveals the Muellers as a family with a dominant gene for showmanship. (Has anyone ever considered of them for the roles of the Hilton twins in “Side Show”?)
“Beautiful” burrows into the meatiest years of King’s creative output, beginning when, as a 16-year-old, she travels from Brooklyn to the Broadway office of promoter Don Kirshner and pitches a song, “It Might as Well Rain Until September.” Kirshner buys it, and soon enough, King is a team with the charismatic Goffin (Liam Tobin), and pregnant to boot, and they’re churning out love songs and dance songs for the likes of the Drifters (“Up on the Roof”) and Little Eva (“The Loco-Motion”). In the studio next to Kirshner’s office are Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), a songwriting team that becomes friendly rivals. Some of Mann and Weil’s hits are interspersed among “Beautiful’s” 26 numbers, including “On Broadway,” “Uptown” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.”
McGrath drolly uses a template out of classic musical comedy, establishing Mann and Weil as the show’s secondary, comic couple: He’s a hypochondriac, she’s a commitment-phobe — all playfully dramatized in Fankhauser’s and Gulsvig’s winning turns. When it’s not detailing the hammering out of hits — there are a lot of “and then they wrote” segues in “Beautiful” — the musical charts the steady decline of King and Goffin’s partnership, in and out of bed.
Some of the best sequences are emotional settings of some of King’s most famous songs: King, leaving for Los Angeles and singing a farewell to Mann, Weil and Kirshner (Curt Bouril) via “You’ve Got a Friend”; a post-divorce King in an L.A. recording studio, mustering the strength to belt out a rousing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In concert with set designer Derek McLane and costume designer Alejo Vietti, director Marc Bruni and choreographer Josh Prince also bring to gleeful life the stylings of such ’60s sensations as the Drifters, the Shirelles and the Righteous Brothers. (Left underdeveloped, though, is the undercurrent of the relationships between white writers and black performers at the height of the civil rights era.)
It should be noted that the Opera House sound system acts up from time to time; during several songs and dialogue scenes Wednesday night, the amplification faded in and out. That’s a big no-no on an evening that otherwise expertly spreads that lovin’ feeling.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Book by Doug McGrath, words and music by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. Directed by Marc Bruni. Choreography, Josh Prince; orchestrations, Steve Sidwell; music supervision, Jason Howland; sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Peter Kaczorowski; sound, Brian Ronan. With John Michael Dias, Rebecca E. Covington, Delaney Westfall, Ashley Blanchet, Curt Bouril and Salisha Thomas. Tickets: $39-$185. About 2