Review: Beautiful

Beautiful the Musical

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.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Every few years somebody grabs the songbook of some great American songwriter, and puts together a musical pastiche of old-fashioned musical comedy. There’s Crazy for You, and even the version of Anything Goes currently playing on Broadway falls partially in this category. So now we have Nice Work if You Can Get It, which takes the Gershwin’s tunes and puts them together with a thin plot loosely based on the 1926 Gershwin show Oh, Kay! Essentially, playboy boy Jimmy (Matthew Broderick) meets bootlegger girl Billie (Kelli O’Hara) and mayhem ensues. These shows are usually feather-light confections, and the diverting Nice Work is no different.

Bookwriter Joe DiPietro has been working on this property for a very long time, and he has got the balance of silliness and bite exactly right (lots of silly, just a bit of bite). There’s a moment of Billie singing sentimentally while cocking a rifle, which sums up the sensibility that DiPietro brings to the show. Derek McLane’s sets are jewel-boxes full of secret compartments, and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are witty delights.

The supporting cast is terrific – Michael McGrath gets the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs as tough guy Cookie McGee, and Judy Kaye is terrific as temperance crusader Duchess Duckworth (who has a few kooky personality traits behind a crusty exterior). O’Hara is the best thing that happens to the Gershwin’s songs in the show; her “Treat Me Rough” is a hoot and a half, and her “But Not for Me” at the top of Act II is truly affecting.

And as for Matthew Broderick, as you might expect he just “does” Matthew Broderick, all smirky deadpan – which happens to work pretty well for the role of Jimmy. And he dances better that I’ve ever seen him do. No, he’s never going to be the principal in a Twyla Tharp show, but he’s working hard at doing justice to director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s footwork – and mostly making it seem effortless. A personal best for this non-dancer.

If you are looking for frothy, traditional musical comedy fun, Marshall’s got you covered. Between this and her Anything Goes, Broadway’s got plenty of the fizzy stuff right now.

For tickets, click here.