Jesse Mueller is a knockout as singer/songwriter Carole King in “Beautiful,” the Broadway-bound musical biography that opened Tuesday in San Francisco.
Crucially, in the music and the singing, the show delivers the goods. That includes a big dose of nostalgia given King’s astonishing catalog of pop songs, from “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” to “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend.”
We first meet Carole Klein in 1958 as a precocious 16-year-old Queens College freshman living with her divorced mother in Brooklyn and trying to sell her songs to Tin Pan Alley.
Producer Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) shows an interest in the kid’s work. Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), a college classmate and lyricist, becomes her songwriting partner and then her husband.
At their office near Times Square, Goffin and the newly renamed King churned out one hit after another for Kirshner and the mostly girl groups in his stable.
Outfitted in Alejo Vietti’s brightly amusing period costumes (shiny gray suits for the Drifters, sparkly peach cocktail dresses for the Shirelles) the high-energy cast performs with zest and irony-free charm.
Down the hall from the team were Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen), another young songwriting couple who become friends and rivals. They’re represented with “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” among others.
By Act II in the mid-1960s, the tone shifts as singers who write their own songs, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles, start to remake the music business. King and Goffin move with their daughters to the New Jersey suburbs. Goffin chases other women and eventually King divorces him.
The biographical snippets between the songs are exposition that tell more than they show. Yet the production (with book by Douglas McGrath and direction by Marc Bruni) is redeemed by the sheer exuberance of the music. What’s not to like about “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or the title number, one of those ultimate feel-good songs?
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” runs through Oct. 20 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Information: +1-888-746-1799; https://www.shnsf.com. The show begins previews at New York’s Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Nov. 21. Rating: ****
Across the bay at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, there’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” Christopher Durang’s clever mash-up of Chekhov.
Last season’s Tony winner for best play stars Anthony Fusco as Vanya and Sharon Lockwood as his sister Sonia, both leading bored and frustrated lives in a country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. It’s owned by their sister Masha (Lorri Holt), a B-list actress, who’s gone through five husbands and arrives with her hunky young boyfriend, Spike (Mark Junek).
Throw in Cassandra, the soothsaying housekeeper who warns of impending doom, and Nina, the young cutie from next door who catches Spike’s attention, for a very funny mix. (Even if Spike’s strip-tease act is egregiously over-the-top).
“Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” runs through Oct. 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. Rating: ****
(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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