It’s always a treat to see an out-of-town premiere of a new musical. This time I had the opportunity to see, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. It’s been awhile since San Francisco had the opportunity to host an out-of-town try-out (the last one I saw was Legally Blonde), but based off of last night’s opening of Beautiful, we are more than a fantastic audience. Producers, take note! Come to San Francisco.
I’m just going to put this out there at the beginning of this review. I don’t think that Beautiful was written for my demographic – white, male, early-30’s, straight. Honestly, that’s okay. I’m not offended. I’m pretty sure this show was written for folks who are over 40 that need to take a stroll down memory lane. And let me say: there is nothing wrong with that. For the audience members who could reflect and remember King’s music and the time period, I’m pretty sure they loved it.
That said, this is a well thought-out production – strong production numbers, incredible singing, wonderful choreography, great pace, and amazing talent all on one stage.
First and foremost, Jessie Mueller is a STAR. She will be nominated for a Tony Award and quite possibly win it. (Though, she will be up against Kelli O’Hara, Idina Menzel, and Kate Baldwin – three of my favorites!) Her performance in Beautiful is a tour-de-force. She creates character and detail in a memoir where there isn’t much sub-text and she brings King’s music to life in a way that is mesmerizing. (Her version of “Natural Woman” was fierce!) Frankly, I wanted more of Mueller. She clearly has it in her to go deeper into King’s emotions, and while the ensemble was incredibly strong, I ultimately just wanted to hear Mueller sing King’s music.
Beautiful is a mix of three shows: Jersey Boys, Baby It’s You and Million Dollar Quartet. There’s also probably a bit of Motown: The Musical and even Smokey Joe’s Cafe in there. The story-telling through King’s music is reminiscent of Jersey Boys but for the most part it felt more like Baby, It’s You — more Broadway glitz/glam than story. The story would really start to get involved in King’s personal love life with her husband and then suddenly there would be a production number of epic proportions of one of King’s songs. The production numbers were phenomenal especially, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by The Shirelles and “On Broadway” by The Drifters. Even “Locomotion” by Little Eva was a fantastic number. And come to think of it “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” by The Righteous Brothers was equally as impressive. They all were… but it felt like I was watching two completely different shows — a throwback 60’s musical and then a musical “biopic” of King’s life. Though King wrote all of those songs, the connection between the music and her personal life didn’t line up emotionally.
And this is where I’ll say that the over-40 somethings probably found more context/subtext in this show than I was able to. I, unfortunately, couldn’t fill in the gaps. While, I love King’s music and grew up listening to it (as my parents had Tapestry on all of the time), I didn’t have an ounce of knowledge surrounding her music and why it came to be. After seeing the musical about Carole King, I still don’t really know why she wrote what she wrote.
I literally learned more reading her biography off of Wiki after the show then I did watching the musical.
The main plot points usually focused on the men/friends surrounding King, but rarely “why” she wrote what she wrote as a composer. You actually never saw her in the process as a composer during the musical. I felt it mostly focused and followed her first husband, Gerry Goffin (a very talented Jake Epstein). They alluded to the main reason why she wrote her Grammy winning album, Tapestry, was because of her divorce to Goffin — highly doubtable that was the only reason. (And after reading Wiki, I found out she moved to LA in 1968 after her divorce to be in a songwriters community that included James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. And then three years later, she wrote Tapestry. All valuable and important information on King’s life that was excluded.)
The moments in the show that shined the most was when Mueller was at the piano singing. First it was with Goffin singing “Take Good Care of my Baby” and then again singing the duet, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. The last song, “Beautiful” with Mueller at the piano was equally as mesmerizing. In these moments I saw magic on the stage. The chemistry between Epstein and Mueller was tangible. Those moments were the best in the show. As much as I loved the ensemble, I could have been sitting in a black-box theatre, with just Mueller and Epstein at the piano, and would have been more satisfied. But again, I wasn’t looking for a big Broadway musical; sometimes expectations are everything.
There’s very few people that have created such an impact on American music as a composer and singer/songwriter than Carole King. She’s written over 400 songs that have been recored by over a 1000 different artists. King’s music is some of the best pop music ever written – there’s no denying it. And Beautiful is cleverly crafted to create a musical with “Broadway-flare” and drama that keeps an audience interested. I just didn’t have enough information to fill in the gaps walking into it. Personally, I wanted more about King’s life and less “flash” but I have a feeling that I might be the minority in this thought as the audience jumped to their feet at opening night in San Francisco. The energy was palpable, the joy was infectious and you could tell that they loved it. I just felt a little left out on this one… and maybe that’s okay.
The one awesome thing about this musical is that King’s music is going to be on Broadway eight times a week starting in November and it deserves nothing less! Besides Mueller’s stand-out performance, it is King’s music that is the star in this musical and it’s a beautiful way to see the music shine!