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Theater Review: "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"

Abby Mueller as iconic singer Carole King in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"
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Something happens early on in the musical “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” now playing at San Diego’s Civic Theatre until July 7, you realize the early days of rock-and-roll were not only fraught with an overused formula consumed by a hit machine, but the African American artists who made the songs popular had no hand in composing them.

Instead they were the result of a savvy and talented white Jewish woman and her husband from Manhattan.

But none of that ever gets addressed in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a biographical musical based on the life and strangely uneventful times of Carole King, the singer/songwriter/composer whose 1971 album “Tapestry” broke records as the most purchased album of all time until The King of Pop dethroned her with “Thriller” in 1983.

One would think that the conflicts of being a Jewish female composer in a male dominated world back in the 50’s and 60's, or the dynamic of black artists relying so heavily on a white dominated music industry would be a bounty of some drama and inspiration, enough to give more meaning and weight to King's already expressive tunes that reigned over the pop music charts for so many years.

Alas that is not the case with “Beautiful.” The dramatic pieces of story are kept crepe-thin, edged out by large chunks of stage time devoted to King’s songs performed without her nunace by other artists through three decades.

“Beautiful” never quite raises above its “greatest hits” feel enough to flesh out the plight of the human spirit, especially in the male driven world of popular music. 

But that doesn’t mean that “Beautiful” is bad, it just means it’s more playlist than Playbill. And that was fine by me.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the woman herself, and Abby Mueller who portrays King, channels her with the right amount of symmetry to blur the lines between the icon and the actress.

We first meet King at the piano during her Carnegie Hall performance. She’s mid-set and sings “So Far Away,” one of her most recognized songs from the album.

She turns to the audience and explains that her fame was unexpected, coordinated by destiny and composed of several surprise turns in her life.

Flashback to 1958, where King tells her mother Genie (Suzanne Grodner), she is going to Manhattan to pitch her latest musical composition to big-wig music producer and likeable tyrant Don Kirshner (Curt Bourdil).

The script makes light work of recognizing King’s plight and Kirshner hires her on the spot.

This sets up the remaining two hours to showcase King’s contributions to the pop music industry interspersed with little to no conflict until the end of Act One.

Mueller gives the straight-laced King a vulnerability that never seems to be needed, her talent in replicating the unique voice of her subject is an awesome combination of homage and study. 

She also must play against the dramatic stylings of Liam Tobin as her husband Gerry Goffin. Tobin infuses Gerry with the abusive sex appeal of Stanley Kowalski and adds a layer of the childlike Willy Loman for good measure.

Tobin’s singing talents are bit underutilized. His mellifluous “Up on the Roof” was one of the better non-Mueller moments that highlight this production.

My favorite co-star was songwriter Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig), her rat-a-tat-tat comebacks were not only funny but smart, a perfect Girl Friday for her partner Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) who gets some of the better laughs in the play.

The two are the friendly adversaries to the Carole/Barry machine, both couples trying to gain more number one hits than the other. 

The set is of minimal construction. There is never more than six pieces of property on the stage, each moved by invisible hands during the course of the show.

But, all of this adds no pulse to the steady heart of the play.

The real star here is King’s music itself. Whether it comes out of her own mouth or those that have been assigned by Kirshner to sing them, “Beautiful” is a jukebox anthology set amid a time when the sound was changing from assembly line boppity-bop to the poetic musings of James Taylor, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens. 

This tour of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" is Abby Mueller's show and as a testimant to her talents, I don't know if Carole King herself could have played it better. 

As far as a biography, "Beautiful" seems to have nothing juicy to work with, but that really doesn't matter because the drama of the human spirit is held within the music, and sometimes that's all the audience ever wants; is to hear the music, and "Beautiful" delivers that in an infectious way. 

The details

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" plays through August 7, 2016 at San Diego's Civic Theatre, 1100 3rd Ave, San Diego, CA 92101.

Thursday at 7:30; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm and Sunday at 1 pm and 6:30 pm.