‘Beautiful’ makes for one fine show

August 5, 2016

One of the simple but profound pleasures of a good jukebox musical is the way it rewinds your mind to a moment when a now-treasured song was heard for the first time.

And when it comes to Carole King, there are a whole lot of those. Who can quite imagine a world now that doesn’t include “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” or “I Feel the Earth Move” or “You’ve Got a Friend”? (Really, who would want to live in it?)

When: 8 p.m. today; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through Aug. 7.

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown

Tickets: About $22.50-$197.50

Phone: (619) 570-1100

Online: broadwaysd.com

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” whose Broadway touring version just hit the Civic Theatre, has a winning way of evoking those moments when a song destined to become a standard makes its first fumbling, tentative entrance, floating from a composer’s piano or tumbling from a singer’s lips.

“Beautiful” does plenty of other things well, too: It’s a beautiful-looking production, and boasts a fully appealing lead performance by Abby Mueller.

The show, which chronicles King’s turbulent, decade-long rise to pop superstardom starting in the early 1960s, also works up a satisfying period feel with musical numbers featuring re-creations of such acts as the Drifters and the Shirelles.

Stuffing all that history into a single, 160-minute show is bound to mean some streamlining and (over)simplifying. “Beautiful,” which stays in the 1960s for the entire first act and a good part of the second, never quite adequately gets at how King made the startling leap from the conventional pop-rock craftsmanship of her earlier songs to the complex and soulful opus that was her 1971 album “Tapestry.”

King’s fraught relationship with her troubled first husband and musical collaborator Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) obviously played a huge part in that turn to the deeply personal on songs such as “It’s Too Late,” and their relationship forms the core of “Beautiful.”

But the show (directed by Marc Bruni) can feel a little light on what fed into those songs, which ultimately helped define the 1970s. (It also glosses over the fact it took three years and one modestly successful solo album before King hit it big with “Tapestry” after moving to L.A. in 1968.)

Still, writer Douglas McGrath does an admirable job of making the show’s main characters feel fully dimensional — not just King and Goffin but their friends Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser), the rival songwriting duo.

The show turns the competition between the couples into a kind of musical sparring match that spotlights both pairs’ astounding creative energy: Weil and Mann putting up “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (which gets an especially stirring rendition here); King and Goffin counterpunching with “Up on the Roof,” “The Loco-Motion” and “One Fine Day.”

Tobin makes the pent-up, increasingly agitated Goffin (who endured drug abuse and psychological issues) a prickly but sympathetic figure, while the sharp-voiced Gulsvig and the gifted comic actor Fankhauser are ideal as the odd couple they portray. (Their side of the story is dwelled on perhaps longer than it needs to be, although it’s hard to argue with their matchless songs.)

But this is really Mueller’s show, and her earthy voice — which sounds startlingly similar to King’s, especially on tunes such as the bluesy “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — does sweet justice to the songs. (Mueller’s sister, Jessie, won a Tony Award in 2014 for originating the same role, but Abby sounds not at all like a second fiddle.)

Curt Bouril (as the producer Don Kirshner) and Suzanne Grodner (as Carole’s mom Genie) are ensemble standouts, and the cast gets excellent musical backing from music director Susan Draus’ 12-piece orchestra.

And Peter Kaczorowski’s vivid lighting and Derek McClane’s spectacular and ever-kinetic set serve as music to the eyes.

If those visuals somehow don’t make your eyes pop, though, you can count on at least a few of the songs to make the earth (and your feet) move.