Jukebox musicals took over Broadway in a big way in the late ‘90s with the box office success of “Mamma Mia!,” a show based on the music of ABBA.
Since then, the musical catalogs of Frank Sinatra (“Come Fly With Me”), Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (“Jersey Boys”), The Beatles (“Rain” and “Let it Be”), Billy Joel (“Movin’ Out”), Green Day (“American Idiot”) and, most recently, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine (“On Your Feet”) have been mined by hopeful producers, just to name a few.
In fact, if you wanted to get technical, all those classic shows featuring popular tunes by the Gershwin brothers, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter would also qualify, but today they’re called the Great American Songbook. And, of course, “Rock of Ages,” “Motown the Musical” and countless other period compilations would make the cut.
The latest jukebox musical to make its way to South Florida is “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” playing at the Broward Center through Sunday, May 22.
Bookended by vignettes of the famed songwriter/singer’s 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, the bio-musical traces King’s life from a 16-year-old aspiring songwriter through the string of ‘60s hits she wrote with husband Gerry Goffin. The show culminates in the breakup of their marriage and King’s decision to move to Los Angeles and pursue a solo career.
King is well known (at least to gay men of my generation) for the iconic hits on her 1971 “Tapestry” album, including, “It’s Too Late,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” “Beautiful,” “You’ve Got a Friend” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
But, the show is a not-so-subtle reminder that she, along with Goffin, were the creative force behind a generation of classics, including “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Locomotion” (written for their babysitter, Little Eva) and “One Fine Day.”
From the first downbeat, the baby boomers in the audience were singing along and rocking in their seats as the story unfolded to a familiar musical backdrop. In the hands of book writer Douglas McGrath and musical arranger Steve Sidwell, King’s story has been deftly adapted for Broadway.
Even though King insists the show’s book is completely true, McGrath seems to take some big liberties: Goffin, the philandering husband, is portrayed as a sympathetic troubled man, perhaps bipolar, sometimes under the influence of alcohol and drugs. King is unwavering and resilient in the face of his transgressions. Rival songwriter Barry Mann (who wrote “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” with partner and later wife Cynthia Weil) is the comic foil, a neurotic hypochondriac who could compete with any character created by Woody Allen. At times, the book slips into comic formula of a ‘50s sitcom a la “The Honeymooners” or “I Love Lucy.”
Abby Mueller owns the role of King from the first notes at a grand piano, offering just as strong a performance as her younger sister, Jessie, who originated the role on Broadway and took home a Tony Award.
Mueller’s appearance as the young Carol Klein is instantly suggestive of Peggy Olsen on “Mad Men,” a fictional character, who also breaks out of the traditional female stereotypes of the time to realize her own professional ambitions and personal potential. She nails King’s slightly nasal tone and the traces of Brooklyn accent that creep into the artist’s recorded performances. Liam Tobin is striking as Goffin and Ben Funkhauser keeps his Mann in check while still managing to milk every predictable one-liner in his script.
Not to be forgotten is the talented ensemble that gives stunning performances ranging from Neil Sedaka (who dated King in high school) to The Drifters, The Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers.
Don’t leave before the curtain call, because director Marc Bruni saves one of King’s best songs for last: “I Feel the Earth Move.”
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” plays at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale through Sunday, May 22. Tickets start at $30 at BrowardCenter.org.