News Column

'Beautiful: The Carole King Musical': It's beautiful

October 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 10--"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" has got a lot of friends in San Francisco. It should, the way buzz has been building during the two weeks of previews before Tuesday's opening at the Curran Theatre. And it's warranted.

If you didn't love King before, you should be won over by the charming and ever-more impressive Jessie Mueller, who plays her in this Broadway-bound musical bio. If you're leery of yet another jukebox musical, all doubts should be blown away by the bounteous, boisterous, musically precise "1650 Broadway Medley" that sets the scene, time and cultural context, lifts the heart and kicks the show into high gear.

It's not quite ready for Broadway yet. A quick comparison of the song list in the program with the numbers performed indicates that the world premiere run -- opening a new SHN subscription season -- is an evolving tune-up for New York. But director Marc Bruni's sleek, flowing production is already looking, well, beautiful -- and sounding even better.

The musical treats come only in part from King, an embarrassment of riches given the dozens of hits she's written, with or without her first husband (and lyricist) Gerry Goffin, in a range of pop, rock and blues styles. But the genius of Douglas McGrath's book is the way he intertwines the story of King and Goffin with that of their friends and avid competitors, the team of composer Barry Mann and lyricist Cynthia Weil, which opens another treasure trove of pop hits to enrich the tale.

"Beautiful" focuses on the first decade of King's career, from the whirlwind courtship with Jake Epstein's magnetic, restless Goffin through their breakout hit with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and often troubled marriage to her solo blockbuster album "Tapestry." The story is framed by King's Carnegie Hall "Tapestry" concert, depicted as her first major appearance as a performer, but it thrives on presenting her within the busy songwriting milieu of the early '60s.

"1650 Broadway" embodies that context. The title is not a date, but an address -- the Manhattan songwriting factory where Mueller's dewy-eyed but intrepid Brooklyn teen King seeks employment. As she braves the lair of hitmaker producer Don Kirshner (a driven Jeb Brown striking Ed Sullivan-esque poses), Derek McLane's great grid of a set transforms into a two-story warren of tiny offices, each containing one or more songwriters in a brilliantly smooth nostalgia mashup of everything from "Splish Splash" and "Love Potion #9" to "Poison Ivy," "Stupid Cupid" and "Yakety-Yak."

Anika Larsen's vibrant, quick-witted and firmly independent Weil and Jarrod Spector's eager, neurotic Mann provide well-tuned comic relief as their romance dovetails with Goffin and King's to illustrate the aphrodisiac and problematic aspects of making music together. One of each pair's hits follows another -- "Up on the Roof," "On Broadway," "Locomotion," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" -- vibrantly performed by conductor Jason Howland's orchestra, the principals and members of the pitch-perfect ensemble as the Shirelles, Drifters or Righteous Brothers to the blithe, period choreography of Josh Prince.

There's more drama in the swift and pretty potent second act, but it still needs work. Goffin's troubles and the marital breakup are well depicted, but King's single motherhood and move into writing solo are not. For all the glory of Mueller's renditions of "It's Too Late" and "(You Make Me Fell Like) A Natural Woman," the build-up to the finale seems skimpy. Still, even at this point, "Beautiful" is a gift. Just be sure to stay for the encore if you want to feel the earth move under your feet.

Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail: rhurwitt@sfchronicle.com

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