TAMPA — Nostalgia is a powerful draw. You would expect a musical about one of the baby boomers' most beloved singer-songwriters to fill the house, as Beautiful: The Carol King Musical did Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
The story is about much more than King, of course, known to younger boomers for her breakout album Tapestry, still one of the top sellers of all time. The book by Douglas McGrath and Broadway production directed by Mark Bruni is mostly a prequel to her stardom, an inspirational tale for a generation that believes one door closing means another will soon open. Like nearly all historical drama, this one cuts a few corners (characters are introduced and phase out in ways that enhance the story line) and softens edges, perhaps to avoid legal entanglements with the living.
But Beautiful is mostly the real deal. Take that from Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Hall of Fame songwriters who are major players in this story. (See my recent interview with Mann and Weil at tbtim.es/zye.) And that realism, which complements the blossoming of a shy Jewish girl from Brooklyn, drives this pleasing show that opened on Broadway in 2014 and should have an extended life on tour.
It must have been a tough musical to pull together. For starters, the creators knew they would have to please fans of the 1950s and 1960s music. Beautiful weaves in a medley of period tunes from King's earliest days at Aldon Music (she started there in 1959 at age 16), with hits like Bobby Darin's Splish Splash, a spot-on Neil Sedaka (John Michael Dias) doing Oh! Carol, and Poison Ivy, popularized by the Coasters. A shifting set quickly transitions from King's home with her mother, Genie Klein (Suzanne Grodner), to the Aldon offices, where the real action is.
King meets songwriter Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) early on, the event that would launch her career and result in an eight-year marriage. In a bit of foreshadowing, she replies to his compliment about having a beautiful smile with, "Do I? I can't see it from in here."
King's music and Goffin's lyrics create an amazing string of Top 40 hits. In 1961, the Drifters enjoyed hits by Goffin and King such as Some Kind of Wonderful, and Bobby Vee cracked the charts with Take Good Care of My Baby. The musical serves generous, if abridged, helpings of other hits by the couple, including Will You Love Me Tomorrow? (the Shirelles, 1960); The Loco-Motion (1962) performed by their babysitter, who went by the name Little Eva (Ashley Blanchet); and Up on the Roof (the Drifters, 1962).
Their evolution, under the watchful eye and sometimes manipulative hand of producer Don Kirshner (played to a razor's edge by Curt Bouril) is intertwined by the simultaneous growth of Mann and Weil, who met at the studios and became best friends and arch competitors with King and Goffin.
Here the history gets so rich you don't even care if the focus shifts from King and Goffin to the other couple, who since became Hall of Fame songwriters with at least 50 hit songs and scores of awards. A sense of discovery, whether in the birth of Mann and Weil's You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' or King's own It's Too Late, Natural Woman or You've Got a Friend, permeates the production. For die-hard fans of that generation, that should be enough.
It doesn't at all hurt that Ben Fankhauser turns in a sympathetic portrayal of the self-deprecating wunderkind as Mann and Becky Gulsvig comes close to stealing the show as the plucky and level-headed Weil. Tobin, as the brilliant but unsteady (and unfaithful) Goffin also earns his money.
But none of these roles would matter if not for the performance of Abby Mueller as King. This is a standout performance in a show that, thankfully, takes time out from a busy song schedule to develop her character. Mueller, whose younger sister Jessie Mueller played the same role on Broadway, hits just the right notes and shows the evolution of a behind-the-scenes writer to a star beyond her imaging. She also does a good job of masking her voice, which is stronger than King's, enough to bring out the authenticity that made her so palatable.
Another line of dialogue from early on baits the trap for its conclusion. "I'm just a normal person," King confesses. "Who wants to hear a normal person sing?"
The world did. And you will.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.