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One Fine Show, One Not So Much

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Jessie Mueller as Carol King in Douglas McGrath’s “Beautiful.” | JOAN MARCUS
Jessie Mueller as Carol King in Douglas McGrath’s “Beautiful.” | JOAN MARCUS

The real conflict in the life of Carole King, at least according to the new jukebox musical “Beautiful,” is that she would have preferred to be a suburban housewife rather than a superstar. She is a reluctant pop phenomenon who had greatness thrust upon her but ultimately rose to the challenge, cast off her 1950s notion of conventional gender roles, and emerged as an integrated personality.

Hardly the typical showbiz story, but in the hands of book writer Douglas McGrath and even working within the constraints of bio-musicals’ episodic nature, King emerges as a likeable and relatable person who is much more than the avatar of the Laurel Canyon sound she became.

“Beautiful” is what a jukebox musical should be, while “The Clearing” just shouldn’t

In fact, the story ends with her iconic album “Tapestry,” which is a turning point for both King and the music business. We watch her rise from a 16-year-old songwriter searching for a hit so she can get a house in the suburbs, meet and marry Gerry Goffin, her lyricist, and develop a relationship with a competing songwriting team, Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann. This last plot point is inspired, as it opens up the musical to a broader playlist and, of course, provides that musical comedy staple — the secondary, comedic couple. Producer Don Kirshner is also featured as the man who picked hits and funneled them to the groups of the late 1950s and early ‘60s.

As with any musical of this nature, part of the fun is realizing that King was behind many of the huge hits of the era, such as the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “The Loco-Motion,” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.” But, even when sketchily drawn, it’s also fascinating to watch King’s emergence as an artist and savvy stylist able to move with the times and adapt her sound to what would sell — until that moment when she herself began to define what sold.

Yes, the show is largely a string of familiar songs, but it’s all done with such charm and vivacity under the direction of Marc Bruni that resistance is pointless. This is a big, crowd-pleasing show that’s as smart about what works as entertainment today as King was in her heyday. “Beautiful” is sweet, toe-tapping fun.

What pushes this show over the top, making it completely enchanting, though, is Jessie Mueller’s performance as King. In a bravura turn, Mueller is both a believable actor and an incomparable singer. A standout in the revivals of “On a Clear Day” and “Edwin Drood,” here she takes on the mantle of leading lady in truly awe-inspiring fashion. As Goffin, Weill, and Mann, Jake Epstein, Anika Larsen, and Jarrod Spector, respectively, are every bit Mueller’s match, top-notch Broadway performers all. The dynamic company moves effortlessly among different song styles while expertly executing Josh Prince’s insightful choreography.

Derek McClane’s versatile set is outstanding, as are the costumes by Alejo Vietti and Peter Kaczarowski’s lighting.

Quibbles? Sure, but why belabor them? This show has one goal — to entertain. It does so joyfully — and beautifully, too.

Gene Gallerano , Brian McManamon , and Brian Murphy in “The Clearing.” | HUNTER CANNING
Gene Gallerano , Brian McManamon , and Brian Murphy in “The Clearing.” | HUNTER CANNING

One obvious rule of thumb in playwriting is that if one is going to create a thriller, then it should probably be thrilling. Jake Jeppson seems to have missed that in his new play, “The Clearing.” Jeppson lifts liberally from sources as diverse as “Sunset Boulevard” (the protagonist/ narrator is dead at the beginning), Sam Shepard (brothers with unresolved issues), Harold Pinter (the story is told backwards, kind of), Agatha Christie (throw in plot twists not justified by anything that went before), and others writers infinitely more talented than he, and the result is a tedious and pointless affair that has neither suspense, plausibility, nor style.

The story is about two adult brothers, Les and Chris, and a secret they’ve shared for 18 years, which they allude to incessantly. They find their place to get away, the eponymous clearing, horse around, and eat s’mores. Les, as it turns out, is gay and when he brings his new lover, Peter, into the family, Chris is jealous. Chris, by the way, is emotionally unstable and torments his mother, Ella, who obligingly suffers. Peter is a photographer, and Ella tries to assuage her troubled soul by posing naked for him because… Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Meanwhile, we learn that Ella’s husband, the boys’ father, disappeared with no warning, also 18 years ago. Eventually, the secret is revealed — not that we were on the edges of our seats — Chris has a psychotic break and murders Peter, the brothers part for good, and we get some unfocused musings from Peter about what it’s like to be in the afterlife.

If the story isn’t confusing enough, the play also jumps around in time, which is sometimes flagged and other times not, but one quickly stops caring and wishes they would just get on with it, wherever it’s going.

Josh Hecht’s direction is undistinguished, but the game cast does what they can with it. Brian McManamon and Brian P. Murphy play the brothers, though they do not look as though they could possibly be related. They both go a long way to make the stilted dialogue actually sound like something real people would say. Gene Gallerano is quite good as Peter, with a warm, engaging presence. Allison Daugherty deserves praise for her handling the overlong nude scene. She has a level of honesty that’s quite appealing, even though the scene’s insertion into the story is awkward and the notion that Ella needs to literally be nude to become vulnerable is the hallmark of an immature playwright.

Running out of steam quickly, the piece continues trying to find itself. My father used to complain that our rector’s sermons “came to three perfectly good stopping places and just kept on going.” The only thrill to be had in this trying evening is that “The Clearing” does, finally, end.

BEAUTIFUL | Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun at 3 p.m. | $75-$162 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Running time: two hrs., 35 min.; one intermission

THE CLEARING | St. Clement’s Theatre, 423 W. 46th St. | Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49.50 at ovationtix.com or 212-561-0407 | Running time: one hr., 40 min.; no intermission

 

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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