Abby Mueller wows as Carole King, which is a challenging feat. King's voice is tough to get right. Mueller does more than shine in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, now at the Academy of Music; she captivates and dramatizes the early life of King, a woman with exceptional talent and a deeper list of accomplishments than most might know. King's discovery of her own voice as an artist, not just a writer, is the inspiring core of this production, a rich show propelled by Mueller's magnetism.
The first act is the story of King's Brooklyn teens. She was a girl who rushed through high school with an exceptional intellect and met her future first husband and songwriting partner at 16. Yes, she got pregnant and they got married a little young, but before divorcing they cowrote some of the most memorable songs of the 1960s, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "The Locomotion," and "Some Kind of Wonderful" among them.
The second act is her triumphant emergence from that failed marriage. We see the beginnings of her iconic and groundbreaking sophomore solo LP, Tapestry, which hits home cleaner and more powerfully than ever at the Academy of Music thanks to this Broadway-caliber touring cast.
A few things struck me at intermission. The dynamic between composer and lyricist was strangely powerful in those nascent days of rock and roll, and King and Gerry Goffin were milked for hit upon hit for other artists. We may think of King as a solo artist and songwriter, but much of this show's focus is on her relationship with Goffin (played with arresting sex appeal by Liam Tobin) and the process of songwriters' writing hits for pop artists who don't write hits.
After her divorce, King gets pushed to the piano at the Bitter End with the help of songwriter friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (played by Becky Gulsvig and Ben Fankhauser, two other treasures in this production) and lays in on "It's Too Late." It's positively electrifying. Mueller distills King's voice, raw and slightly unpolished, powerful but with a distinct timbre that's beguilingly rough. Coupled with an ideal piano build, it's good for chills and tears.
In a poignant moment, King, about to move with her two daughters to Los Angeles, performs "You've Got a Friend" for her pals in New York. This musical glorifies King, with good reason. Her career with her former husband may have launched her own, but her triumphant independence is the ending this story wouldn't be appropriate without. The supporting cast is strong, the wardrobe satisfactory, and the staging and lighting adequate, but Mueller captures King's essence, all the way down to the feel-good finale of "I Feel the Earth Move."
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Through April 3 at The Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St.