Beautiful, the new musical about the early years of Carole King, isn't much of a show, but it passes by pleasantly, and by the end of the evening, you don't feel that your time has been wasted. In a funny way, it's like some of King's most famous songs — it deals with some messy emotions, but it does so in a way that's rather becalmed.
The show takes the young Carole (née Klein) from her days as a precocious student at Queens College, when she has her first taste of success writing songs for doo-wop groups in the 1950s and '60s, through her loving but volatile marriage to her collaborator Gerry Goffin, to her emergence as a star singer–songwriter with the multiple Grammy-winning album Tapestry. (Is there anyone who didn't own this LP back in 1972?) There's a generous helping of King's hits along the way, and several by Goffin and King's close friends, the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The numbers are neatly staged by director Marc Bruni and particularly by choreographer Josh Prince (who help turns "On Broadway" into a show-stopper), but what keeps the show earthbound is the book by Douglas McGrath. From the early scenes, which are reminiscent of the hackneyed old movie composer biopics from the '40s and '50s, McGrath's script listlessly rolls by, feeling like an outline that he couldn't summon the energy to develop. There are some nice individual lines, and they are given a good spin by Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann and, most of all, by Jessie Mueller as Carole King. ("I have the right amount of body, it's just not organized properly," complains the young Carole.) Publisher Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) is a device, not a character, and Liz Larsen works much too hard as King's self-involved mother. Most of the big scenes are under-written, including the one in which the two couples' problems come to the surface over a strip poker game, and many of the moments dealing with marital discord seem strained and a little trivial, like an old '70s sitcom that decides to go all dramatic with an episode on infidelity.
But Jessie Mueller, like Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz a few years ago, works magic with her material. It might seem risky to build a big musical around a menschy woman who never loses her equilibrium, but Mueller so fully inhabits King's Brooklyn-girl-niceness that she ennobles her shaky vehicle. Her charm is never forced; she gives the show a quiet but absorbing center.