King’s ‘Beautiful’ lights up the Fox

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King’s ‘Beautiful’ lights up the Fox

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We open on a girl and her piano—simplicity. It was an opening evocative of Ms. King herself. However, it was a humble introduction into the bright-light, Broadway hit that consumed the stage when “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” began its run at the Fabulous Fox on the evening of Feb. 23.

The bio-musical tells King’s story before she became a household name and big-time Grammy winner. In fact, we meet King (an impressive Abby Mueller) before it was her pseudonym, back when she was Carole Klein—the 16-year-old Brooklyn songwriter looking to sell her first song.  Quickly, we are introduced to Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), King’s young husband and writing partner, as well as the Brill-Building in Times Square, the building that housed the Goffin-King collabortion that cranked out so many Motown megahits. The audience is taken on a tour of the up-and-downs of the pair’s career and marriage, up until King’s emergence as a singer-songwriter in her own right, sans Goffin.

The show makes good use of this setting at the Brill-Building 60s—showcasing the Goffin-King numbers that went on to top the charts, like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “The Locomotion” and the epic “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Luckily, the Brill-Building is also home to the songwriting duo of Barry Mann (a charming Ben Frankhouser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), who penned the illustrious “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” and “On Broadway.” The Mann-Weil relationship serves as a purposeful juxtaposition of the Goffin-King match: one relationship getting stronger along with their success while the other crumbles under the changing times and their own changing desires.

The first act serves as a steady swell of songs that leaves the audience with little time to breathe. It’s a parade of powerful vocal performances, song after song after song. The audience gets cameos from groups like the Drifters, the Shirelles and the Righteous Brothers, who all give impressive performances of their famous hits. If there were one criticism of the production, it would be how abrupt these time-jumps can be. The show makes light of these jumps: at one point, producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril) asks Carole how old their baby is now and she says, “five.” “Five-years-old?” we gasp along with Don, and “No!,” Carole exclaims, “five months”—but still!  The show doesn’t settle into itself until it nears the end of the first act, as the tension builds and the relationship between Gerry and Carole is clouded with uncertainty.

However, any flaw of the show is overwhelmed by the cast’s performance. Frankhouser delivers an extremely likeable, hopeless romantic balled into an anxious hypochondriac in Barry. Gulsvig does a commendable job complimenting her writing partner as the fiercely independent Cynthia.

Still, it was Mueller’s portrayal of King that stole the show. Perhaps the most interesting fact of the “Beautiful” traveling company is that it was Mueller’s sister, Jessie, who starred in the original Broadway production, winning a Tony in the process. Jessie received heavy praise for her portrayal of King, from her humble delivery of the role to her uncanny replication of King’s trademark throaty vocal sound. The expectations for Abby were set to a very high standard. While it can be said that Abby vocals are not as consistently commanding as her sister’s, when she got to sing “One Fine Day,” she ripped into the song with an impressive emotional and technical delivery that dissipated any doubts that she couldn’t stand up to the impression that her sister had left on audiences.

Additionally, Mueller was such a charming and believable King. She was funny, unassuming and, as she noted multiple times, just a normal person. Mueller’s performance adapted to King’s transformation through time: from the witty and driven teenager with a dream to the 28-year-old single mother of two, scared of doing it alone—Mueller is true to King’s modest nature through it all.

What Mueller’s performance and the show hits on best is that, at its core, this story is about a woman – during a time when it was a rarity for women to be respected players in the music industry – finding her independence, her courage and her voice. So by the time we reach the end, when she sits at the piano at Carnegie Hall, we can feel her triumph as she hits the keys and lets her voice soar. When she sings the lines “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart,” it starts to feel like a command.

“Beautiful” is a love letter to Carole King, an inspiration for all of us “normal people” out there—that even we can take it all the way to the top.