Like many smart girls who grew up in the '50s, Carole King suspected her intelligence made her unattractive. But by 17, she was both a successful songwriter and a wife and mother.
We meet the title character of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," which opened Sunday night at the Sondheim Theatre, as she strikes a deal with Mom. If she can't sell her latest song, she'll give up her Top 40s dream and become a schoolteacher. At 16 -- having skipped two grades, she's majoring in education at Queens College -- she meets Gerry Goffin, who becomes her songwriting partner and husband.
Of 400-plus songs she wrote, 15 -- many with Goffin -- are reborn in "Carole King," including "Beautiful" from her 1971 "Tapestry" blockbuster. But this is no one-source jukebox musical. Six oldies were written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, who toiled next door to Carole and Gerry in Don Kirshner's Times Square pop factory. Theirs is a friendly poker-style competition: I'll see your "Locomotion" and raise you a "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling."
With Marc Bruni's crisp direction and Josh Prince's precision choreography, the hits segue seamlessly on Derek McLane's industrial grid set -- from drab office to glittery concert stage -- with the efficiency of a snappy line (libretto by Douglas McGrath) as we encounter live replicas of The Drifters, Shirelles, Righteous Brothers and Little Eva.
Act II downshifts from jukebox to drama. With the emergence of the singer-songwriter, there's less demand for anonymous tunesmiths. When Kirshner suggests that "Pleasant Valley Sunday" suits The Monkees, Gerry, who fancies himself a poet, walks out. On her own, Carole writes songs only she can sing. The result: "Tapestry," the bestselling album by a female artist until Whitney Houston's "Bodyguard" soundtrack.
Jessie Mueller strikes a delicate balance between spunk and humility, making it impossible not to root for her as she morphs into an inspired Carole King. Jake Epstein reflects Gerry's conflicted soul while Anika Larsen and Jarrod Spector offer comic contrast to their songwriting rivals' discord. As Kirshner, Jeb Brown is a softy for anyone who writes a hit, while Liz Larsen struggles to rise above the mother-of-the-star cliches she's assigned.
If there's one song among a dozen to hum on the way out of "Beautiful," it should be "Will You (Still) Love Me Tomorrow," exemplifying both the professional and personal side of this Gershwin Prize-winning genius.
WHAT "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"
WHERE Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St.
INFO $75-$252; 800-432-7250, beautifulonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE If you love Carole, you'll still love her tomorrow.
A 'BEAUTIFUL' SONG LIST
Songs by Carole King, including many with her former husband, Gerry Goffin, in Broadway's "Beautiful," the musical story of her life:
* "So Far Away"
* "It Might as Well Rain Until September"
* "Some Kind of Wonderful"
* "Take Good Care of My Baby"
* "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"
* "Up on the Roof"
* "One Fine Day"
* "Pleasant Valley Sunday"
* "It's Too Late"
* "You Got a Friend"
* "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"
* "I Feel the Earth Move"
Songs by Cynthia Weil, Barry Mann or both:
* "Happy Days Are Here Again" (alternate lyrics)
* "Who Put the Bomp"
* "He's Sure the Boy I Love"
* "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling"
* "Walking in the Rain"
* "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"