Jukebox musicals — think “Jersey Boys” and “Motown” — generally follow a tried-and-true formula. They provide the back story for the creation of beloved popular songs while revealing information about the personal lives of the songwriters.
That formula finds excellent expression in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” which Minneapolis audiences are seeing for the first time in a touring production that opened Wednesday for a two-week run at the Orpheum Theatre.
Abby Mueller, who headlines director Marc Bruni’s buoyant production, has the cadences of King down pat, especially on numbers such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” King’s first No. 1 hit, written at 17, and “You’ve Got a Friend,” one of King’s breakout songs as a solo singer-songwriter.
But it is the vulnerability and openness of Mueller — the big sister of Jessie Mueller, who originated this role in New York and won a Tony for it — that makes her so compelling. Even though Douglas McGrath’s book suffers from the thinness endemic to jukebox musicals, “Beautiful” is a winner, thanks to the singer/actor’s emotive, introspective performance of King’s iconic songs.
The show starts out with King living in Brooklyn with her single mother, Genie (Suzanne Grodner), who has become embittered by men. Mom wants her daughter to follow her into the teaching profession, but Carole, a pianist and budding songwriter, wants to try her hand at music. She goes to the Brill Building in Times Square, famed as the epicenter of songwriting, auditions for A&R man Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril) and the rest is history.
Frumpy Carole and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), the hot guy who got her pregnant and married her, too, vie against the songwriting duo of Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser). The couples compete fiercely but also become dear friends. Carole and Gerry have their ups (hit singles) and downs (Gerry proves to be immature and unfaithful).
What makes “Beautiful” stand out from others of its ilk is the way it frames King’s songs, giving them emotional power that goes beyond simple nostalgia. We see King’s self-confidence grow as she finds her voice.
The first act ends with King reclaiming her song “One Fine Day,” after she discovers Gerry stepping out on her again. At first the song is performed as we remember it — a peppy, girl-group pop number — but then Mueller takes over, her voice bringing a bluesy realness and introspection to the song.
While the entire cast is polished, all eyes are rightly on Mueller.
The truth is that people go to jukebox musicals for songs that are part of the baby boomer soundtrack, here delivered by groups playing the Drifters (“Up on the Roof”), the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”) and the Righteous Brothers (Weil-Mann’s “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling”). Those numbers honor the original recordings while creating new associations. They make “Beautiful” a show that leaves you smiling.