From the familiar pounding of the piano on I Feel the Earth Move in the overture to the endearingly awkward entrance of Abby Mueller’s Carole King for the opening song, So Far Away, the national tour of Beautiful — The Carole King Musical works hard to make you fall in love.
And then Beautiful, which made its South Florida debut at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night for a two-week run, gets really good. Exceptional, even.
The cast, Alejo Vietti’s era-perfect mod costumes, Derek McLane’s creative scenic design of an early 1960s songwriting factory, Brooklyn living room and Carnegie Hall, and Marc Bruni’s seamless direction raise the bar for jukebox musicals. Beautiful also contradicts the notion that touring shows can’t possibly be as good as their Broadway counterparts.
If you weren’t already a fan of King and her music, you will be by the time this bio-musical wraps after two hours and 20 minutes. Don’t be surprised if you leave the theater nursing a bit of a crush on Mueller, too. She’s the older sister of Jessie Mueller, who won the lead actress Tony Award for originating the role of King on Broadway, and you will immediately warm to her empathetic interpretation of the songwriting icon. Mueller’s voice sounds closer to King’s imperfect instrument than her sister’s, and she captures the soul, joy and honesty of King’s hoarse yet expressive singing without lapsing into mimicry.
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Beautiful is book-ended by King’s triumphant solo Carnegie Hall concert in June 1971, the same week both Tapestry and its double A-side single, It’s Too Late/I Feel the Earth Move, were No. 1. In between, the musical traces the trajectory of Carol Klein (before she added the “e” and “King”) to get to that artistic and commercial peak.
The fears of not fitting the physical female ideal loom large for the Brooklyn teenager, a classically trained pianist who skipped two grades of high school to land at Queens College. Boys like the hunky Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) are out of her league, she tells one of her girlfriends. Guys like Gerry want some of her features to be bigger here and smaller there.
“I have the right amount of body — just not organized properly,” she says. Self-deprecation is her shield, and Douglas McGrath’s smart book gives Mueller and her supporting cast a detailed template to draw upon.
The handsome Goffin doesn’t share King’s affection for ’50s rock ’n’ roll. “What can you say in three minutes?” he sniffs of the ditties that fill the airwaves. He’d soon say plenty in his lyrics for the provocative Will You Love Me Tomorrow, a No. 1 hit for the Shirelles in 1961, which King set to a beautiful melody, arguably her finest.
They wed when she was 17 and he 20. The couple’s talent finds them steady work as staff writers at Aldon Music, the home that song publisher Don Kirshner (Matt Faucher on opening night) built.
King aficionados will appreciate the life story cues that McGrath layers into the script that describe in offhand fashion the beloved Tapestry album cover — the windowsill, the cat — without belaboring the point. The rest of the book will delight audiences no matter their familiarity with King’s Tapestry and earlier hits (more than 100, actually) that she composed for others with Goffin.
Tobin deftly channels Goffin’s demons and insecurities with the right tone and avoids caricature. Though McGrath condenses history to keep Beautiful brisk and on time, the essential truth is not sacrificed, and he writes with one ear to classic sitcom dialogue — funny without stupidity.
“If there were only two places on earth — hell and Times Square — the nice people would be in hell,” King’s doubtful mother Genie (the excellent Suzanne Grodner) frets when her daughter tells her she’s taking the subway to Kirshner’s office to sell one of her songs.
Beautiful is also the story of the pair’s songwriting competition, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, friends who would write the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, a tune that would rival the Goffin-King canon after Goffin and King earned a No. 1 hit with The Loco-Motion, a dance bauble they gave to their teenage babysitter Little Eva to record.
As Mann and Weil, Ben Fankhauser and Becky Gulsvig are fantastic. She’s an extroverted lyricist who shows up at Kirshner’s office insisting, “My tunes are better live,” and who makes him listen to her bio, sung to the tune of Happy Days Are Here Again. He’s a lovable hypochondriac who could give Woody Allen lessons in neurosis. “This is what I’ve been offering the whole time — a mutual existence of anxiety and doubt,” Mann gushes when Weil finally buys into his ideas of marriage.
Beautiful offers an emotion-filled story, great songs and an irresistible post-curtain call moment: a rousing cast-audience sing-along to I Feel the Earth Move. Just try and not feel moved.
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If you go
What: ‘Beautiful — The Carole King Musical’ featuring songs by Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 6:30 p.m. Sunday; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday (and May 18) and 1 p.m. matinee Sunday; through May 22
Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale
Information: 954-462-0222 or BrowardCenter.org