Carole King took years to find her voice. She penned hits for others as part of the famed Brill Building crowd, but it wasn't until she sang her own songs that she captured the sound of a generation.
That journey is the spine of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," which is making its world premiere at San Francisco's Curran Theatre through Oct. 20 before heading to Broadway. While the storytelling here doesn't live up to the songs, there's no denying that this score is some kind of wonderful.
King wrote an eclectic catalog of hits during the 1960s and '70s that are instantly hummable, even to those who weren't alive in that era. From "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" and "You've Got a Friend" to "I Feel the Earth Move," these are pop classics that transport the audience to a happy place. Although many jukebox musicals try to capture the giddy musical escapism of "Jersey Boys" and "Mamma Mia!," few succeed with as much spark as "Beautiful," which is being presented as part of the SHN series. If the music doesn't feel woven into the tapestry of the narrative (from an uneven book by Douglas McGrath) it's hard to resist the bliss of one great song after another.
The musical also boasts a thoroughly endearing performance by Jessie Mueller as the iconic songbird. A Tony nominee for "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," Mueller captures King's earthiness and pluck -- and the grit that got her through the dark times in her life, such as a brutal divorce from her songwriting partner, troubled lyricist Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein). Mueller also captures the unmistakable warmth of King's voice. The actress delivers iconic tunes with a lightness and sweetness that makes them hit the ear in a fresh new way. She nails the rawness in King's vocals and the chutzpah that drove her to learn the piano at age 4 and start selling her own songs at 16.
Certainly King's modesty was no match for her spunk. When smooth operator Goffin flirts with her, saying she has a beautiful smile, she wisecracks, "I do? I can't see it from in here."
Unfortunately, the musical sometimes loses its focus on King and how she found the music of heartbreak. The first act gets bogged down in the Brill Building ethos, where songwriting teams like King and Goffin had to face off against the likes of Cynthia Weil (a radiant Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (the magnetic Jarrod Spector). Hits were cranked out like sausages in this tune factory, and director Marc Bruni gives the songs a nice sense of period panache, as performed by an ensemble cast playing pop artists ranging from the Shirelles to the Righteous Brothers. But there's no need to hear them sung by more than one performer. It's enough to listen to King sing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" without hearing the Shirelles do it again with extra gloss.
It's also too bad that the tumultuous romance between Weil and Mann, who wrote songs such as "On Broadway" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," is so much more arresting than the rocky marriage of Goffin and King. The back story is clear enough. King was loyal and naive, raising babies and hoping for the best. Goffin was moody and pretentious, feeling trapped by marrying too young. But there's not nearly enough delving into what made her stick with him through all the affairs, tantrums and breakdowns.
McGrath hints that King was trying to rewrite her own childhood trauma (her father had cheated on her mother), but there's not enough nuance in their interactions to be certain.
To be fair, Mueller fleshes out these moments, so we see King's determination to make a bad marriage work. But it's not until halfway through Act Two, when King dumps Goffin, that her story truly seems to take center stage. The mystery of creativity is finally unleashed.
Instead of hearing more slick renditions of hit songs, from "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling" to "One Fine Day," we finally begin to hear the truth and ache of a woman singing from her soul. When the music seems to flow from the narrative, "Beautiful" is irresistible and vivid.
Mueller's wistful performance of "It's Too Late" is among the musical's showstoppers. You can hear her sound blossom. You can hear the echoes between her life and her work. You can hear a legend being born. If only there were more such moments in this show, "Beautiful" would truly make the earth move under our feet.
'BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL'
by Douglas McGrath
Through: Oct. 20
Where: Curran Theatre,
445 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours,
30 minutes (one