Carole King Musical, 'Beautiful' in San Francisco Review

21/10/2013 15:18 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

A musical biopic of Carole King might not seem the most likely of shows to secure production from the Broadway bigwigs but nevertheless we have an initial premiere at the Curran theatre in San Francisco, before the New York reviews in November. And it could be that those who signed this one off might be looking at a success.

You never can quite tell with this type of musical. When the songs are good, and the songs here are belters, there is without doubt a ready made audience. People will come just to hear them alone, which makes traditional musical theatre exponents and critics view such musicals derisively, feeling it is an easy option to box office success.

But what about the rest of the show? Does a jukebox musical need more than songs to be successful? Well there seems to be no definite answer.

Look at Mamma Mia. After all these years the show disaffirms the notion that there needs to be a decent story. The fluffiest of narratives still draws the crowds night after night the world over. Perhaps all those Abba songs could never have failed. 'We will Rock You', like Mamma Mia, another fictionalised musical, has hardly been a commercial disaster, despite blanket contempt from commentators.

'Let it Be', the Beatles musical running in the West End at present does absolutely nothing but play the songs: tantamount to an act of crime for many. There will undoubtedly be some brilliant original material out there unable to see the light of day while this musical brings in money.

Then there's 'Buddy' or 'Jersey Boys' which surrender tune after tune, but take the biopic route. Particularly in the case of Buddy, the stories are powerful and carry more gravitas.

But the success of the jukebox musical is never a shoo-in. Viva Forever's short-lived tenure in the West End earlier this year is an example.

So, what will become of 'Beautiful', and will Carole King's reputation as an artist with integrity help to secure success?

Writer Douglas McGrath took a particular period in King's early career, and wisely steered clear of over-sentimentalising. He reveals how she came to write her consecutive hits and whilst much of the first act repeats variations on a theme, it is never less than interesting.

We see King's rise from modest beginnings in Brooklyn and how her mother railed against her pursuit of a songwriting career (the Young King was less inclined at this stage to actually perform) and how she fearlessly ambushes the Times Square office of record company chief Don Kirshner.

King's love interest is introduced early, in the form of Gerry Goffin, a budding writer she met at university and the pair strike up an intensely productive writing partnership.

They meet friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, another flourishing creative coalition and we are given a flavour of the good spirited competitiveness that ebbs and flows, albeit good heartedly, between the two couples. The show ends on a high, with King, exuding 1970s liberation and confidence in a free-flowing signature dress, playing a solo gig at Carnegie Hall and declining Goffin's pre-show appeal for reconciliation after their prior break-up.

The songs are delivered with simplicity and confidence, some tenderly played against a sole piano, and as the show unfurls the ensemble, playing as groups such as the Shirelles, beef up the super hits with the band. 'Will You still Love me tomorrow' is a central tune and its refrain could not be repeated too often. Following this came 'Upon the roof', and 'Take good care of my baby'. Weil and Mann's partnership spawned 'You've lost that loving feeling' and ' On Broadway', proving this was a foursome with considerable song-writing clout.

Carole King is a rarity: never the sort of up front, mega celebrity type, but disposed of an ability to craft songs which sold millions. Her defining album, Tapestry, was listed in the Billboard charts for 300 weeks in all between 1971 and 2011.

Unlike many of her counterparts, she wore the same clothes she had always worn and didn't need to amend the look to fit anything. The makeup, the bodyguards, the superstardom were not her bag. It was the music that seemed to matter, which was unusual then, and is more unusual still now. King was, or is, a unit shifter of mammoth proportions who could still pass as your Aunty.

'Who wants to hear music by normal people?' she implores before she started to sing her own songs publicly, as if to state that in order to appeal the artist has to be modified for mass influence.

The writer uses an understated and simple script to do what it had to do: facilitate the songs, the very backbone of the show. There were a couple of quirky one liners about marriage and love, and some interesting expositions in to how songs were written or how they came to be sung by certain groups or artists. In one of many 'I didn't know she wrote this!' moments, it was revealed that a new dance song called 'Locomotion' had no artist to sing it and the dilemma was solved by King simply having her babysitter record it. Let's not even mention Kylie Minogue..

Jessie Mueller, who plays King, judged her performance assuredly. Her voice was perfectly understated, classic, not garish. She didn't miss a note, and you never once doubted she would. Anika Larsen played Cynthia Weil with style and the ensemble made decent work of the dance sections for big numbers.

This deserves to go well when it moves to New York. They have gone for a simple formula, free of bombast, which is entertaining and insightful and pays homage to a significant artist, and there is significant quality and directness in the songs which will surely appeal to young and old.