It may not have made headlines in every city on the docket for Beautiful—The Carole King Musical’s national tour when Abby Mueller was announced to play the title role. But in Chicago, where the very winning jukebox bio-musical opened last night for a 12-week stand, the casting was an irresistible news hook, given that Abby Mueller, part of a full family of Chicago-bred actors, would be figuratively picking up the torch from her sister Jessie Mueller, who played the young Carole King on Broadway and won a 2014 Tony Award for it.
But now that obligatory exposition is out of the way, let’s assess Abby Mueller’s performance on its own terms: Mueller is sensational in her portrayal of King, who went from insanely successful factory songwriter to insanely successful singer-songwriter over the course of the 1960s, give or take a few years. The star captures every aspect of the Carole King that Douglas McGrath’s book presents: warm, wistful, practical, modest, a woman growing into herself.
McGrath and director Marc Bruni mostly avoid the pitfalls of similar shows—the macho bluster of Jersey Boys, the masturbatory self-congratulation of Motown the Musical—in their portrait of King’s troubled marriage to and eventual divorce from songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), with friendly-rival team Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (Becky Gulsvig, Ben Fankhauser) on hand as supporting characters.
Between the two pairs, the show’s creators have a ridiculous wealth of hits to mine. If the setup of writers toiling at the upright piano morphing into fully orchestrated musical numbers can begin to feel rote, especially in the show’s first act, Mueller and the rest of the top-notch touring cast make you feel like it’s natural, man or woman.
Oriental Theatre. Book by Douglas McGrath. Music and lyrics by Gerry Goffin & Carole King and Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil. Directed by Marc Bruni. With Abby Mueller. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.