Dallas — There’s an intimate, telling moment in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, the touring production of the 2014 Broadway hit, with a tight book by Douglas McGrath, part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series now onstage at the Winspear Opera House.
Brooklyn girl and shiny pop composer Carole Klein has progressed from teenager with chutzpah, changed her name to King, and become a hit songwriter married to lyricist Gerry Goffin, her first love and composing partner. She wakes up and finds a song he’s been up all night writing to meet a deadline. She sits down at the piano, reads the words and picks out what seems now the inevitable opening melody to “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” How we all still throb to that sweet song, written by King and Goffin and recorded in the wailing harmonies of the Shirelles in 1960. Like many of King’s hits, the song has become a standard because the question itself reveals so much about our youthful yearnings and vulnerability.
The touring production, celebrating the words and music of Carole King and her first husband Gerry Goffin, stars talented and touchingly sincere Abby Mueller, sister of Jessie Meuller, who won a Tony for playing the title role on Broadway, and is now starring in the Tony-nominated The Waitress. Abby is an amazing King look-alike, especially in the later scenes, with her thick, dark blonde curls and singing the title song in her throaty, stirring voice. Of course, this modest and brilliant songbird made it to Carnegie Hall.
The show, directed with clarity and rhythmic pacing by Marc Bruni, opens with King’s solo 1971 megahit “So Far Away” and quickly moves back to her beginnings in Brooklyn, and her rise to household-name fame over a decade of songwriting.
From Mama Mia and its ABBA love in 2001 to All Shook Up, Jersey Boys and Motown, the so-called jukebox musical has become a Broadway staple because people get a kick out of hearing the music they grew up with—and because it’s fascinating to watch astonishing singers and actors not just impersonate, but bring to life the glory of our idols in their climb to the top. Formulaic? Sure. But many of these bio-musicals have drama and insight, as well as being “fun fun fun.” By the time the Beautiful cast reached the last number, “I Feel the Earth Move,” the audience was on their feet clapping and dancing to the first-rate band on opening night.
The pleasure of this show is not just in its increasingly confident and vibrant heroine, but a thoughtful performance by handsome Liam Tobin as the composer’s disturbed and philandering young husband. King and Goffin met, married and became parents while still teenagers—and they also wrote “One Fine Day,” “Up on the Roof” and other hits between part-time jobs and changing diapers. They even wrote the deathless “The Loco-Motion” which brought fame to Little Eva, their real-life babysitter.
McGrath extends the musical boundaries of the show by including many standards written by their pals and songwriting competitors Barry Manns (a plaintiff, comic Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (a spunky, sarcastic Becky Gulsvig). These collaborators’ hits include “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.”
We get a pop bath early in the show when Carole and Gerry and Barry and Cindy are all checking in with their producer Don Kirsher (a fast-talking, paternalistic Curt Bouril) at the famous Brill Building, the Tin Pan Alley of the era that cranked out chart-climbing hits by the hundreds. Derek McLane’s bright, jazzy framed billboard-style set lights up in every corner where we see and hear hot performers singing bits of “Poison Ivy,” “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and “Splish Splash, I was Takin’ a Bath.” Hey, jump in! Throughout the show, the versatile ensemble moves front and center to do stuff like the Drifters’ moves in “On Broadway” or The Righteous Brothers’ soulful “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’.” Feel it.
By the time Abby Mueller’s Carole confronts her problematic marriage and gets herself off to a new start in Los Angeles, we have a sense of this terrific young woman’s struggle to sing her own songs in her own voice—and we better understand what goes into a self-realizing ballad like “Beautiful.” You go, girl.