Whether in literature, cinema or theater, we seem to be fascinated by celebrity origin stories: the journeys taken by luminaries to achieve the fame they currently inhabit. In the case of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the star in question is the prolific singer-songwriter (played by Abby Mueller), who tells us during the opening scene, “I never meant to be a singer.” Ironically, King is performing at Carnegie Hall, but from that performance, the show flashes back to her youth in Brooklyn and leads us through her formative years, providing a wonderful walk down musical memory lane in the process.
As a precocious college student of 16, King, who still lives with her very Jewish mother, Genie Klein (a hilarious Suzanne Grodner), meets Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), who will become both her lyricist and her husband. As King and Goffin begin penning hits, their chief rivals turn out to be another composer-lyricist duo who shares a “cubicle wall” with them at 1650 Broadway, the music factory in Midtown Manhattan run by mega-producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril). That duo of Cynthia Weil (a spunky Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (the amusingly neurotic Ben Fankhauser), also a pair of hit makers, quickly become King and Goffin’s close friends, too.
The show’s book is built around a series of hit songs, beginning with those King and Goffin wrote for other artists, such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Locomotion” and “One Fine Day.” But as King overcomes life’s tribulations and grows into her own person, the music veers more toward her own work, such as “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and, of course, “Beautiful.”
Director Marc Bruni’s staging is both slick and inventive, from the rotating piano that emphasizes the parallels between the two songwriting duos, to the rabbit-warren look of the music factory at 1650 Broadway, to the efficient transitions between scenes and effective comic buttons at the ends of them. He is, of course, aided by Derek McLane’s versatile set, which cleverly incorporates 1960s-style speaker-grill designs, as well as Peter Kaczorowski’s evocative and colorful lighting and Alejo Vietti’s costumes, which evolve seamlessly from the fashions of the ’50s to those of the early ’70s without ever feeling “costumey.”
Gulsvig’s Mae West persona yields many laughs, and Tobin showcases range as both a cocky young writer and a darker, middle-aged man trapped in suburbia. But Mueller shines the brightest, retaining the innocence (and thick accent) of an awkward girl from Brooklyn who asks, even in the midst of her rise to stardom, “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?” Despite such insecurities, Mueller skillfully modulates her singing over the course of the show, building to the point, in the final number, when her voice finally fully opens up with beautiful resonance.
GO! Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; through July 17. (800) 982-2787, hollywoodpantages.com.