It wasn't the 19½-minute traffic jam leaving the labyrinthian Hobby Center parking garage that soured me so on Beautiful, the jukebox musical based loosely on the life and times of Carole King, one of America's premiere songwriters and performers; it was the show itself.
If you survived the '60s – hell, if you survived the '50s – then King's music is as tasty and fragrant as a Proust madeleine. One measure of its music, one iconic song intro, and a flood of memory envelops. This is music of our youth – baby boomers' youth – and they were present en masse.
You can pinpoint where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, who you were, when you first heard “I Feel the Earth Move” or “You've Got a Friend.” King's music defined us – it defined an era.
But if you've ever seen Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls, Motown, Million Dollar Quartet, The Marvelous Wonderettes, Rock of Ages, A Night with Janis Joplin, We Will Rock You, On Your Feet!, even The Boy From Oz or Smokey Joe's Cafe, you will be all too familiar with Douglas McGrath's paint-by-numbers plot, Marc Bruni's slick staging, Josh Prince's “doo-wop” choreography, and the tug on the heartstrings that is absolutely necessary for this kind of show to succeed.
Rags to riches, true love lost, the wages of fame – the rest of the template can be completed in your sleep. You can hear the producers salivating: The songs are standards that everybody knows and loves, so just surround the tunes with snappy patter, well-oiled stage machinery with plenty of razzle-dazzle and sequins, bring on the Broadway belting voices, and, voilà, another generic bio-musical. It's audience-proof.
Seeing this particular genre in the flesh is no better or worse than watching it at the movies, with Cornel Wilde playing Chopin, Robert Alda as Gershwin, or, heaven forbid, Cary Grant as Cole Porter or Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart. This type of ersatz show has a long, profitable, if not stellar, pedigree. Beautiful will not be the last of its kind. (Jersey Boys is the quintessential jukebox musical, the epitome of the form, the best of the lot.)
Way before King became a pop/folk icon, she had an impressive musical history, starting as a 16-year-old songwriter in, or near (depending on the story), NYC's legendary Brill Building, the music factory where all American pop originated. You may not even realize that her résumé includes such seminal hits as the Shirelles' “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Little Eva's “The Loco-Motion” and “It Might as Well Rain Until September,” Bobby Vee's “Take Good Care of My Baby” and “Go Away Little Girl,” the Drifters' “Up On the Roof,” Herman's Hermits' “I'm Into Something Good,” the Chiffons' “One Fine Day,” the Monkees' “Pleasant Valley Sunday” and Aretha Franklin's “A Natural Woman.” All standards. You can hear the audience's nostalgic sigh waft through the theater. The rush will knock you over if you're not prepared for it.
Being a female composer in this rough-and-tumble male world of rock and roll is given no focus whatever in the musical, except as an exit joke by her influential producer Don Kirschner: “You're a girl; you write girl songs.” You'd think this distinction might be important to her development as an artist, but no, it's romance, of course, that drives our hero. You see, King, nee Klein, from Brooklyn (Abby Mueller), falls in love with sensitive high school stud Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), who needs a quick tune for his lyrics. The rest is history – Broadway musical history. They rush to the big city, the tyro team produces one pop hit after another, Carole gets pregnant, they marry, he feels trapped and has an affair that dooms the romance, she soldiers bravely on to a solo performing career, damaged but infinitely better. Seen this story arc before?
Along with the catchy King/Goffin catalog, the musical makes use of a panoply of other hit tunes from the era written by their young competitors, and future best friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (standouts Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser). This duo's equally impressive pop roster includes The Drifters' “On Broadway,” The Righteous Brothers' “You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling” and The Ronettes' “Walkin' in the Rain.”
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Almost all of these hits are performed by quasi-impersonators of the famous groups. None remotely resembles Neil Sedaka, Little Eva, The Righteous Brothers or the Shirelles. Didn't anyone on the creative team ever watch American Bandstand? But does that matter? Apparently not to current stage fashion. Everything's a facsimile. The audience knows the songs, right? Isn't that enough? At least the costumes and dance moves bespeak period.
Mueller, sister of Jessie Mueller, who won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Beautiful, is totally winsome when not suffering marital trauma, which is most of the time, but has King's distinctive vocal timbre down pat. When she's singing solo at the piano, she's more alive than in any of the book scenes. She's so put upon by errant hubby, you expect an ice floe to sweep her away. Tobin looks impressive in his Streetcar mufti and can wail like a prizewinner from American Idol, but his character is written on Etch A Sketch, so we can hardly fault him for not being there in 3-D. Gulswig and Fankhauser, with their combined hard-edged sass (hers) and accumulating neuroses (his), easily steal the show away from the bland vanilla principals. Where's their show?
How many more jukebox musicals are waiting in the pipeline? It's a genre here to stay, I'm afraid. Go and gush with nostalgia, relive your glory days, hum along and tap your feet, and just remember that what's onstage, after being put through that big Cuisinart that is Broadway, is no more true to life than aspic is to Jell-O.
Beautiful continues through June 5 at Broadway at the Hobby, 800 Bagby. For more information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35-$175.