Saturday, November 21, 2015

Beautiful on Tour at the Orpheum

The national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is playing at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis through November 29. The musical tells Carole King’s story from her start as a teenaged songwriter through her marriage and collaboration with Gerry Goffin, to her success as a singer-songwriter with the smash hit album “Tapestry.”

As far as “jukebox musicals” go (Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia), Beautiful has a better melding of story and song than most. When (then-named) Carol Klein goes to pitch her song to publisher Don Kirshner, the building is full of studios showing all kinds of music being made and performed. It places the audience immediately in the Brill Building era of pop music. 

Abby Mueller as Carole King, Liam
Tobin as Gerry Goffin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Klein (who changes her name professionally) connects with college classmate Gerry Goffin, an aspiring playwright, to put words to her music, and they are off and running, personally and professionally. The best idea of playwright Douglas McGrath is to immediately introduce King and Goffin’s friendly rival songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The teams compete to sell songs and for chart positions, which gives some pushback to King and Goffin’s success and allows the script to incorporate some of Weil and Mann’s hits.

As both teams write their songs, pieces of their relationships appear in the lyrics, and the people around them shape the songs, which we see when the hits are performed by the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva, and the Righteous Brothers, among others. The songs only get more personal as King and Goffin’s relationship falters.

Mueller, Becky Gulsvig as Cynthia Weil, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann, Tobin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Abby Mueller is effective as King, from a teenage success and young mother to her emergence as a recording artist. She’s got enough of King’s sound to recall her without the performance feeling like an impersonation. To this untrained eye, she also looked like she could have actually been playing the piano, which is a good thing, since she spend most of her time at the keyboard. The supporting cast is very good, with special praise to Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser as Weil and Mann. Their partnership in music and life is entertaining to watch, and they get most of the show’s laughs.

Above all, Beautiful is about the music, and that was very well done, although opening night was marred by occasional feedback and volumes so loud that the sound was distorted, which I hope has been corrected. I found the performances entertaining, and enjoyed the way the songs melded with the lives of the songwriters.

Abby Mueller. Photo by Joan Marcus.
However, the majority of the audience seemed to be watching the show as if it were an oldies concert, howling with recognition when familiar tunes began and cheering as if watching the actual stars. By late in the second act, they were cheering the characters on, even during the dialogue scenes. I felt like a bit of a pill, but I just wanted people to calm the heck down and appreciate the show. It made me wonder if the response on Broadway was similar, or if it’s just Midwestern enthusiasm. I thought Mueller deserved a standing ovation for her performance, but the audience was on its feet as soon as the curtain call began.

Like Jersey Boys, Beautiful appeals to an audience recalling the music of its youth, and the show is a smashing success on that front, but there’s an interesting life happening between the hits, as well. That’s the Beautiful that I enjoyed the most.