Theater review: ‘Beautiful’ is a warm and witty soundtrack of the ’60s

Memorable words and music take center stage in the tuneful “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” now on tour at the Fox. It is as much about the history of early rock ’n’ roll as it is the remarkable life of the legendary singer-songwriter.

The fluid, well-constructed musical is a joyous and sentimental walk down memory lane — a captivating behind-the-music story of the soundtrack of the 1960s.

A warm and witty book by Douglas McGrath reveals the rise of Carole from shy but talented teen to a strong, independent solo artist who recorded “Tapestry,” a landmark achievement (more than 25 million copies sold, four Grammy Awards and longest run on the Billboard chart by a female artist).

The hits keep coming as a slick ensemble swiftly moves the story along, delighting the audience with each familiar number.

Aspiring songwriter Carol Klein met Gerry Goffin at Queens College, a fortuitous match in life and love. In 1959, they married, and became part of the pop hit factory at Don Kirshner’s Aldon Music. She was the melody maker, he was the wordsmith.

They came along when nonsense lyrics were radio staples — Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? But their ability to write catchy tunes with pizzazz catapulted them to the top of the charts: “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” for the Shirelles, “One Fine Day” for the Chiffons, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for Aretha Franklin and “The Loco-Motion” for their baby sitter Little Eva.

Songwriting partners Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) were in the cubicle next to the couple, and the competitiveness resulted in many standards — they defined the rock era.

With audible reactions to each number, it was if the audience was playing “Name That Tune,” as one hit song after another — either written by King and Goffin or Weil and Mann — was performed with gusto. “Ohs!,” cheers and applause were frequent responses.

Polished performers portrayed popular girl groups and the dynamic quartet The Drifters as if they were on the variety shows of the times — “Hollywood Palace,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig.”

Andrew Brewer and John Michael Dias as The Righteous Brothers brought the house down with a soulful “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

The principals were sensational, with Abby Mueller endearing as Carole, powerful in voice and natural in the role’s progression. When the character finds her own voice after heartache and pain, it’s a thrilling moment.

The emotional journey isn’t easy, but Mueller led with aplomb, and we eagerly followed. She is the sister of Tony winner Jessie Mueller, who originated the role, but Abby has genuinely made it her own.

Mueller shared an easy chemistry with lanky Liam Tobin as the gifted but troubled Goffin, and the pair meshed well with strong singers Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser, playing their best friends Weil and Mann. That duo’s subplot is entertaining, and their character quirks are amusing.

Sturdy support is handled by Curt Bouril as mentor and boss Don Kirschner, and Suzanne Grodner as Carole’s nagging mom Genie.

Marc Bruni, who has directed at The Muny, effectively focused on the relationships and the work, highlighting the changing times for frames of reference.

The fashions by Alejo Vietti smartly captured the era. An efficient and attractive set design by Derek McLane easily moved settings from home to office.

I was fortunate to see this show on Broadway, and its transference to the tour doesn’t miss a beat.

It’s an experience to savor and enjoy. If you don’t hum a few bars, or tap your toes, or clap your hands at some point, check your pulse.

“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical”

  • When: through March 6
  • Where: The Fox Theatre, 527 N. Grand Blvd., St. Louis
  • Tickets: www.fabulousfox.com; MetroTix, 314-534-1111