Hear it again for the first time

‘Beautiful’ goes beyond the jukebox musical

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Abby Mueller excels as the legendary Carole King in "Beautiful."
Joan Marcus

“Singers are beautiful like Diana Ross or Petula Clark. I’m just a normal person,” says Carole King in Beautiful to guitarist Nick. “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?”

“Other normal people?” Nick replies.

And so captures the essence of Beautiful — The Carole King Story, now playing at the Buell Theater through July 31. We meet King in 1958 as a modest 16-year-old in Brooklyn who has big dreams of composing pop songs. She admires the people who write songs that connect with their audience, and she wants to do the same. Filled with talent, King quickly finds success.

Beautiful first hit Broadway in 2014 and was nominated for seven Tonys, taking home two — for best sound design and best actress. The musical follows King’s career and turbulent marriage to collaborator Gerry Goffin and the couple’s friendship and rivalry with fellow songwriting team Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

The show is chock full of the best of King’s hits. Jukebox musicals are a safe bet on Broadway — Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages lure people with their recognizable hits, but à la Jersey Boys, Beautiful attempts to tell the story behind the music. We see the evolution of “Will He Love Still Love Me Tomorrow” from simple piano arrangement to a melodic chart topper sung by The Shirelles. But that’s only one of many songs from King and Goffin, not to mention Weil and Mann — the brains behind the likes of “Walking in the Rain” and “You Lost That Loving Feeling.”

The first act is stacked with those classic toe-tapping songs in a constant tug of war between the competitive writing pairs — when Weil and Mann drop “On Broadway,” King and Gerry come back with “The Locomotion.” But while the fast revolving door of songs might be an attempt to mirror the assembly line lifestyle of songwriters in the early ’60s, the pace felt claustrophobic and unsettling. Plus, the characters belabored one repetitive joke: “This song will never be a hit,” cut to duo playing the first few chords of famous hit, cue audience laughter.

Through the chaos of the first act, we see the backing principles shine in their own right — Liam Tobin as Goffin, Becky Gulsvig as Weil and Ben Fankhauser as Mann. But the real praise goes to Beautiful’s chorus of amazing talent. Almost every member gets to have the spotlight as they take the stage with powerful performances as the various singing acts that made these songs famous — i.e., Neil Sedaka, The Drifters, The Righteous Brothers, Little Eva and more.

The touring cast is led by Abby Mueller, sister of Jessie Mueller who originated the role on Broadway and earned a Tony for her performance. When Abby Mueller takes the stage in the show, the audience remembers we’re all here for King and her story. Mueller brings the quiet vulnerability and humble showmanship that shells King’s deep talent.

Beautiful is a coming of age story sometimes dwarfed by a jukebox musical. The second act escapes the frenzy of the first, but at times it felt like watching a greatest hits concert, not a musical. Almost like a reflex, the audience would clap after just a few notes of a song as if to say, “Oh! We know this one! We love this one!” — a definite oddity in the theater, where applause waits for the end no matter how beloved the showtune.

But Beautiful does manage to take it a step further than a greatest hits compilation. It allows the audience to see the stories behind the songs, the people behind the words. King’s character brings a honesty to the songs, whether she tries to put faith in her cheating husband, or finally stands up for herself, or struggles to sing a song that her ex wrote lyrics for.

Some of these tunes are almost 60 years old — this year, King’s masterpiece Tapestry celebrates its 45th anniversary. And while the lyrics remain and the messages are still there, time can dull their impact to become just another “great” song.

Songs like “It’s Too Late, ”Natural Woman” and the title song are iconic. They’re the songs we’ve heard hundreds of times and the ones King has performed even more. Whether we heard them as adolescents, as young adults or sung by our children as they come on the oldies radio station, we’ve heard these songs so much that they almost dissolve into our psyche. We sing along without a thought; we forget the feelings that went into their creation.

Jukebox musicals have the ability to re-establish that power and to refresh that memory. So next time you hear “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” don’t just mindlessly sing along. Hear the vulnerability, the doubt, the hope, the love that King and Goffin originally put into the song. Hear it again for the first time.

On the Bill: Beautiful — The Carole King Musical. Denver Performing Arts Complex, 1345 Champa St., Denver, 720-865-4239. Through July 31.