Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Jukebox Musicals Work

Theater fans often look down on jukebox musicals, but as grateful as I am for musicals that are ambitious and original, I also don't care what the source material is if the show is entertaining. In the case of Beautiful, the music and the cast are good enough to mostly overcome the book problems that plague most jukebox musicals. But you don't go to see jukebox musicals for the book (in this case written by Douglas McGrath).

From left: Jeb Brown as Don Kirshner, Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Jessie Mueller as Carole King, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann, and Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil; Photo credit: Joan Marcus
Beautiful, as you may know, is the Carole King musical. Jessie Mueller plays the singer-songwriter from her days as a teenager in Brooklyn, back when she was Carol Klein, through recording the 1971 album Tapestry, arguably one of the best albums of all time. The musical of course deals with her relationship with husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (played by Chris Peluso, filling in for Jake Epstein, at the performance I saw), with whom she wrote songs like "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Some Kind of Wonderful." What you may not know (at least I didn't the first time I saw it) is that the musical is also very much about Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), the songwriting couple behind songs like "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" and "On Broadway." They were close friends and competitors with the Goffins.

The show covers a lot of ground, so the transitions aren't always seamless (though they are sometimes comical, like when Goffin asks their babysitter to think of someone to sing "The Locomotion" by saying, "Come on Little Eva, think," right before she goes into the song). But the cast really makes the most of the material. Mueller isn't imitating King, but creating a lovely three-dimensional portrait of the woman. Peluso manages to make Goffin sympathetic even when he's acting like kind of an asshole. Spector and Larsen have great chemistry, provide comic relief, are both in fine voice (a highlight of the show is Spector's rendition of "We've Gotta Get Out of This Place"). And every song is good. Every single one. How many new musicals can you say that about?

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