The hits keep on coming throughout "Beautiful," the jukebox musical bio that attempts to do for Carole King what "Jersey Boys" did for the Four Seasons. That it has is indicative of the appeal of this karaoke entertainment aimed at Baby Boomers who happily pay premium prices to relive the music of their youth. They do get their money's worth as familiar 1960s pop hits punctuate this chronicle of King's career from the time she broke into the music industry at the age of 16 to her debut on the Carnegie Hall stage shortly after her album "Tapestry" swept the 1972 Grammy Awards. During that time King and her lyricist husband Gerry Goffin wrote a string of hits for such groups as the Drifters, the Shirelles and even The Monkees. They may not have put the "the Bomp in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp," but they wrote a slew of appealing songs that never seem to get old.
But not only are King's memorable pop hits showcased in this show, which runs at the Opera House through November 15, but also some by their peers, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who as friendly rivals pretty much matched them hit for hit. (They are nicely played with brash New Yorkese by Ben Fankhauser and Becky Gulsvig.) This stream of hits turns out to be the best thing in the show, and they are delivered with a professional sheen by this most likable cast. Take, for instance, a collage of early '60s hits sung in counterpoint that sets the tone early on. With the lively staging and inspired musicality, it suggests that perhaps "Beautiful" may be a cut-above its jukebox bio competitors.
Too bad the narrative that follows plays like "Funny Girl"-in reverse. It's not the world that doesn't know that King is the greatest star, it's King herself, which pretty much puts her in the background for much of the time. She would be happy moving out of the city to Levittown - not a meme that makes for a dynamic center to the musical.
"Beautiful" follows King's journey to self-empowerment, but does so in a way that would have seemed dated fifty years ago. If anyone lets King down in this process it's Douglas McGrath, whose book offers a cliché-ridden account of the songwriter-turned-singer's ascension in the pop music world. His snappy, sit-com-inspired banter may be audience friendly, but his characters lack much depth, which only makes the show feel hollow when Geffen gets restless in their marriage, cheats on King and has a breakdown. When King comes to terms with his cheating heart it gives Abby Mueller her first chance to take charge and from that moment on, she commands the show.
What's attention-getting about the casting of Abby Mueller is that she's the sister of Jessie Mueller, who won the Tony for her performance in the original company. (Boston audiences saw Jessie last summer in "Waitress" at the American Repertory Theater.) Not having seen Jessie in the original, it is impossible for me to make a comparison; nonetheless Abby gives a capable, even compelling turn as King. For much of the time she's the quiet center around which the action revolves, leaving you to wonder when she's going to break loose. When she does, she's a wonder to watch, finding her voice both as a woman and a singer. She also pays homage to King's distinctive vocal style rather than offer a slavish imitation.
At first Liam Tobin is every bit the early 1960s dreamboat as Geffen - he sings like a teen angel and looks like a hunk out of Beach Party movie; too bad his emotional outbursts - such as one triggered by learning he'll be writing songs for the Monkees - leave him shouting like a petulant teenager. Perhaps that's the point, but Tobin's Jekyll-Hyde routine gets tiresome pretty quickly.
Much of the show's first half offers a musical collage of pop music in the era between Elvis and the Beatles as groups like the Drifters, the Shirelles and the Righteous Brothers appear as if out of some Vegas-styled rock impersonation show. In these moments "Beautiful" shamelessly evokes "Dreamgirls" without that show's originality. To his credit director Marc Bruni paces the action with a speed and slickness that that helps blur the wafer-thin story and characters; and his work is complemented by Josh Prince's period-styled choreography. In some ways the musical's first act is a revue - lively and entertaining; when the narrative takes charge in the second half, it veers into a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week territory. Not that finding fault with this show matters much. "Beautiful" is another critic-proof musical; maybe I am just missing that jukebox musical gene.
Beautiful continues through November 15 at the Boston Opera House, 529 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information visit the Broadway Across Boston website.