NEW YORK — If you happened to notice hell freezing over this Broadway season, please don't assume that it was another fluky manifestation of climate change. There's something I need to confess: The musical I enjoyed most out of the top Tony contenders was of the jukebox variety.
I know, I know, I've held "Mamma Mia!" and its retro-Top 40 cousins responsible for a host of woes in my serialized Book of Revelations detailing the apocalyptic commercialism of modern Broadway. Yet my vote for best musical would go to "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," starring a shyly luminous Jessie Mueller in the role of the songwriter-turned-singer who felt the earth move under her feet and tenderly conveyed the ache when her beloved was so far away.
But wait, my confession doesn't end there: My runner-up choice isn't "A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder," much as I feel tremendous guilt about not advocating for the only show in contention with a completely original score.
I preferred "After Midnight," a Cotton Club homage that shucked story in favor of a steady stream of Duke Ellington delight. ("Aladdin," which I wasn't able to include in my Broadway binge, rounds out the best musical category.)
Have I become a convert to a musical theater form that has often seemed to me a mercenary exercise in Baby Boomer nostalgia? Not exactly. This season Broadway has just done a better job of stylishly serving up conventional fare than finding more original material that can appeal to a broad audience.
"Gentleman's Guide," based on the novel by Roy Horniman that was adapted into the 1949 film "Kind Hearts and Coronets," deserves to win on creative ambition alone. The production, directed by Darko Tresnjak, has a score by Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak with some larky wordplay, the fey Edwardian setting is a designer's dream and the multitudinous performance by Jefferson Mays as the various aristocratic murder victims is still a delight even if the hamminess has hardened a bit since the show's run last year at San Diego's Old Globe.
But the musical's charm is intermittent. The show, considered the front-runner to win the best musical Tony, is hampered by a libretto that never attains a driving momentum and leaves the murderer's character (played by Bryce Pinkham) pretty much a blank. (Freedman will likely be rewarded with a Tony for his book, but that's only an indication of the level of competition.) And when not engaging in clever linguistic horseplay, the score doodles unimpressively.
"Beautiful" exhibits many of the problems of jukebox musicals. The storytelling is often rudimentary, settling for biographical postcards that turn minor characters into stick figures. But what the production, directed by Marc Bruni, does unexpectedly well is preserve the human scale of King's songwriting style.
The numbers, the vast majority of them from the pre-"Tapestry" period in which King was collaborating with her husband, Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), aren't oversold. The lyrics of such songs as "Take Good Care of My Baby," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and "Up on the Roof" are not only respected but the emotional context provided by Douglas McGrath's book allows us to hear them afresh.
The focus is on the fruitful professional partnership and rocky marriage of Carole and Gerry as well as on their relationship with another skyrocketing songwriting couple, Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector) and Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen). Their rivalry — amicably spurring rather than vituperative — allows the musical to widen its scope to take in the radically changing sound of pop in the 1960s.
But it's the personal dimension of the music that is front and center of a production that is immeasurably enhanced by a quartet of richly inhabited performances. Mueller, Larsen and Spector were all nominated for Tonys and Epstein should have been. (Memo to Center Theatre Group: If you're going to host the touring version of "Beautiful," please do everything possible to wrangle these four actors, each of whom shores up the show's human core.)
The disintegration of King's marriage leads to the remarkable achievement of "Tapestry," in which sorrow and happiness are transmuted into enduring art. Mueller's Carole leads us along this inner journey toward independence and self-respect. For all the clumsy theatrical shorthand employed by the book, complexity prevails where it counts. Epstein's Gerry is too psychologically complicated and filled with regret to become the villain. This is a musical for adults who don't want to have to check their emotional maturity at the door.
The singing vibrates with stunning individuality. Even the rousing ensemble numbers of hits made famous by the Drifters, the Shirelles, Little Eva and the Righteous Brothers are sung with intimate vocal character. The performers impersonating these famous artists manage to endow them with a singular humanity.
Mueller simulates King's distinctive sound but adds to it her own marvelous shadings. Much as I love King, I have to admit that I could listen all day to Mueller's covers without longing for the originals.
But it's the resonant story of a woman finding her voice that persuaded me to forgive the show some of its faults. "Gentleman's Guide" is much cleverer and "After Midnight," with its march of tap-dancing and jazz crooning headlined by a revolving door of marquee names (I caught the seductive Vanessa Williams) and featuring the sublime Adriane Lenox, is 90 minutes of showmanship bliss expertly calibrated by director and choreographer Warren Carlyle.
Some of you are no doubt content to see shows that mischievously tickle your funny bone or knock you out with their musical virtuosity. I like those too, but when a musical can make me feel something without resorting to mawkishness, well, isn't that what all of us are secretly hoping for when we head out to the theater?
I still hold that, as musicals go, this shoe-horning of yesterday's hits into consumer-friendly dramatic vehicles is a lowering of a once-great tradition. But when the formula is adjusted, as it has been for "Beautiful," the work can rise with genuine poignancy to the top of a variable season.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times