This is going to be some kind of hit – it’s about a week too soon to say whether it’s a “smash” or a “sleeper.” But I predict Beautiful will be at the Stephen Sondheim for a long, long time. And I couldn’t be happier about it!
First of all, Beautiful features an extraordinarily sensitive, Tony-nom-worthy performance from Jesse Meuller as legendary singer-songwriter Carole King. King is most famous for her album Tapestry, one of the best-selling albums of all-time, with over 25 million copies sold worldwide. It still holds the record for most consecutive weeks at number 1 by a female solo artist.
By the time she released Tapestry, however, King had already had a successful decade-long career writing hits for the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll, mostly in tandem with her then-husband Gerry Goffin. The story of their troubled marriage forms the heart of Beautiful, giving it a more human-scale feeling than any other jukebox musical I can think of, to terrific effect.
Which isn’t to say that Beautiful lacks spectacle! Several production numbers feature breathlessly energetic “stage” performances of soul groups, such as the Shirelles and the Drifters, of those great 1960s Goffin/King classics. Director Marc Bruni manages the shifts from living rooms to concert halls with great deftness, including skillful use of Derek McLane’s multilevel set. For the production numbers McLane has created gorgeous, massive panels of lights that not only underline the song’s flavor but also open them up to something more abstract and magical. Truly beautiful!
Mueller delivers her songs with nuanced feeling, and gives us an astonishingly three-dimensional portrait of a woman simultaneously living her dream and losing control of her life. The broodingly handsome Jake Epstein makes a great foil for her, showing Goffin slowly sliding into what we would recognize today as bipolar disorder.
Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector are great fun as the troubled couple’s closest friends – and songwriting competitors – Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Jeb Brown makes for a very engaging version of record executive Donny Kirshner – maybe a little too engaging, given Kirshner’s reputation for being stiff and a little wooden.
Beautiful is a jukebox musical with a recognizable human center. As such, I think it’s one of my favorite jukebox musicals of all time. Highly recommended.
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