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Surefire songs, vibrant cast are key to 'Beautiful,' the musical about Carole King

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
The 1960s don't seem "so far away" in "Beautiful," the formulaic, engaging musical about Carole King.

The genre known as the jukebox musical is so firmly planted that it just keeps on producing offshoots. Each new sprout may not be all that distinguishable from previous ones, but the right combination of popular songs and at least a thread of a story line can be enough to spell fresh success at the box office.

Case in point: "Beautiful." This musical, with a book by Douglas McGrath, offers a look at the early career of Carole King, from her days writing hits for others to her leap into the solo spotlight and her best-selling "Tapestry" album in 1971.

The show opened on Broadway in January 2014 and continues to run there. A recently launched national tour has settled into the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C., for much of October. (Baltimore is not on the list of stops this season.)

It's too late to weed out all the cliches, right down to the audience sing-along finale, in the formula-following work. But as the vibrant touring production makes plain, "Beautiful" sure does know how to entertain.

Those who remember when every college dorm room had at least one well-used copy of "Tapestry" on the shelf should get particular enjoyment from being immersed in this nostalgia bath. Those who don't already know details about King's life -- a Brooklyn girl who gets a big break at Don Kirshner's songwriting factory, finds love, loses love and finds her way -- should appreciate learning the background.

It's part soap opera (whose life isn't?), part sitcom. Mostly, it's right out of vintage Broadway and Hollywood musicals, another spin on the durable tale of a determined soul beating the odds. (The deja vu aspect gets pretty thick, including a backstage scene that involves a visit by a former beau just before the star's big finale, a la "Funny Girl.")

McGrath's book, which blends fact and fiction with ease, has the major virtue of not taking itself too seriously. There is a good deal of wit and a certain tongue-in-cheek quality, as if the writer knows exactly when he's pushing a well-worn button, regifting an old gag or plot turn. And when sentiment emerges, it registers true.

Add in the words and music by King and collaborator Gerry Goffin, along with those of their fellow Kirshner proteges, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and you've got a friendly show. In the end, all of those ingredients make this feel like a natural musical.

The performers have a lot do with that.

Abby Mueller steps confidently and persuasively into the role of King, originally created by her sister, Jessie Mueller, who earned a Tony Award for her portrayal. Abby Mueller doesn't try to imitate King's voice so much as capture the singer/songwriter's honesty. The acting is likewise genuine, often quite affecting.

Liam Tobin does nicely nuanced work as Goffin, the talented lyricist who had much to do with King's initial success -- and first big heartache. 

Delivering Woody Allen-esque humor in a perfect dead pan, Ben Fankhauser makes a terrific Mann. His singing is a little strained but still effective. Becky Gulsvig brings style and wry inflection to the role of Weil, and the touch of Kristin Chenoweth-like chirpiness in her singing voice gives the production an enjoyable jolt. 

Curt Bouril is smooth and amiable as Kirshner. The rest of the ensemble measures up, including those offering more or less convincing impersonations of The Shirelles, The Drifters and other artists who got the benefit of songs churned out by King, Goffin, Weil and Mann. 

The action, directed by Marc Bruni, moves in smooth fashion through Derek McLane's evocative set, and a tight group of players in the pit provides solid support for song after evergreen song.

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