I've never considered myself a Carole King fan. Growing up, the main thing I knew about Tapestry, her landmark 1971 album, was that Dark Side of the Moon was chasing it for the most consecutive weeks on Billboard's Top 200 chart. (Yes, I was a very special kind of nerd; and yes, Pink Floyd did eventually take over first place.)
While I never wore out the vinyl on Tapestry, I knew the songs through osmosis. As I got older and started to notice more songwriting credits, I found King had a hand in plenty of big hits of the 1960s. Beautiful takes that fact and molds King's story into a thoroughly entertaining jukebox musical.
While this is billed as the "Carole King Musical," Beautiful uses the music of two songwriting teams. There is King and her collaborator/husband, Gerry Goffin; and their main rivals/friends: Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The two couples met at the Aldon Building in New York City (across the street from the famous Brill Building), where they worked with producer Don Kirshner to write hit songs.
And hits they did write. Beautiful is a jukebox musical, and it's packed with plenty of hits, from "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" to "Up on the Roof" to "The Locomotion" to "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
Beautiful celebrates the hard work a seemingly simple pop songs takes to make, and thrills in the moment that something memorable emerges from the scratched and rewritten notes on the music sheet. There's that sense in the first few moments of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" that just grows as it evolves in the famous Shirelles version.
Along with the music, Beautiful uses the details of the quartet's life (sometimes remixed a bit for dramatic effect) as its narrative glue. Center to that is King's growth through the '60s, especially after her marriage to Gerry dissolves. That leaves her feeling emotionally raw, but somehow free. We feel that in the last part of the musical, as Tapestry comes to life.
While the show ends with the title song as King performs at Carnegie Hall, it reaches its apex a few minutes before, when the singer plows through "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," the climax of Tapestry and a song written with her ex-husband.
While I've been talking about King, it is really actor Abby Mueller who brings the singer-songwriter to life. Engaging, spry, and willing to wear all of her emotions right on the surface, Mueller makes for an engaging and dynamic lead. She gets plenty of help from the rest of the cast, including the intense Liam Tobin as Gerry and Becky Gulsvig as Cynthia Weil.
Douglas McGrath's playful script avoids the pitfalls of other similar works (I'm looking at you, Motown) by keeping the focus firmly on the characters who make the music. He doesn't try to link this to the greater changes in the world during the 1960s. Instead, Beautiful is about the craft of writing a great pop song, and the enduring power of friendship.
IF YOU GO
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Through Nov. 29
910 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 1-800-982-2787 or visit online.