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Review: ‘Beautiful’ makes a fetching Los Angeles debut at the Pantages

“Beautiful – The Carole King Musical” is that rare Broadway offering – a jukebox musical with a soul.

The touring production, which opened Friday at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre, reveals the reason this show has become the “Jersey Boys” for the XX chromosome set.

Borrowing the tried-and-true biographical formula of scrappy artists working their way to fame, the musical extracts all the nostalgic glory out of a catalog of hits few Baby Boomers will be able to resist.

At the same time, the center of storytelling gravity is decidedly female, making this show as rich in poignant emotion as it is in Broadway pizzazz. There’s psychology for those who want it and era-defining tunes for those who’d rather escape into the memory of a simpler, if not necessarily more enlightened, American era.

“Beautiful” sketches Carole King’s rise from precocious Brooklyn songwriter in the late 1950s through her powerhouse collaborations with husband Gerry Goffin in the 1960s to the liberated solo career catapulted by “Tapestry” in 1971 after her marriage failed.

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Douglas McGrath’s book capitalizes on those introspective qualities King’s later music gave unforgettable voice to – tenderness, self-doubt, and wisdom hard won from disappointment. But this is as much about a generation of artists as it is about one extraordinarily gifted woman.

McGrath broadens the scope to look at the friendly rivalry that developed between King (Abby Mueller) and Goffin (Liam Tobin) and another couple with a legendary talent for turning out gold records—Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) and Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig). An added benefit is the inclusion of a few Mann-Weil classics, such as “On Broadway” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

But more important dramatically, this expanded focus allows us to experience the thrill of being a young American composer during that period of pop between the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and the British Invasion.

The smorgasbord of golden oldies will make it difficult for audience members, particularly those of a certain age, to sit still in their seats. Songs made famous by The Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), The Drifters (“Up On the Roof”) and Little Eva (“The Locomotion”) drop with assembly-line regularity even as the show takes us behind the scenes to witness the sweat and stress that went into their creation.

Derek McLane’s set, an amalgam of office, stage and home that keeps the glitzy allure of the music business always in sight, establishes a fluid environment for Marc Bruni’s supple staging. Scenes shift in a blink from King’s Brooklyn home to the New York headquarters of music publisher Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril), where jostling songwriters are in a race to turn out three-minute chart-busters.

Josh Prince’s choreography brings these tunes to visual life once they are released from the pressurized incubator of Kirshner’s office and performed by artists, most of them African American, who can make them their own. The numbers are stylishly interwoven in a show that mitigates to an extent the shoehorning tendency of the jukebox genre. This approach may be superficially smooth (the racial politics of the record business is avoided) but it’s effective in its circumscribed way.

When ‘”Beautiful” opened on Broadway in 2014, the show made a star of Jessie Mueller, who won a Tony for her heart-rending portrayal of King. Her sympathetic performance made many of the songs sound like emotionally supercharged versions of the originals.

At the Pantages, the role of King is performed by Abby Mueller, Jessie’s older sister, and I’m happy to report that she’s quite touching in the part. Her voice may not evoke the sandpapery style of King’s as closely as her sister’s, but her more modest virtuosity is in keeping with a singer-songwriter who was always more of the latter than the former.

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The emotions the elder Mueller elicits from the songs, while perhaps not as piercing as those of her younger sibling, touch us nonetheless to the quick. And her journey from musical aspirant to disappointed wife to independent woman is rousing even when handled with predictable sentimentality. Representing more than just one famous person, this biographical arc reflects the fate of women moving from the conventional 1950s to the more liberated 1970s.

When King leaves her serially unfaithful husband, whose unstable mental health is the cause of much turmoil, the audience cheers not simply in solidarity but in recognition that out of this unhappy ending will come a magnificent artistic birth in the form of “Tapestry,” the achingly personal album that wound up anticipating the zeitgeist’s emancipatory turn.

There’s plenty of humor along the way, courtesy of the hypochondriacal angst of Fankhauser’s Mann and the wisecracking pertness of Gulsvig’s Weil. (Both actors are terrific in portraying characters whose neuroses turn out to be a perfect match.) Suzanne Grodner adds a nice Brooklyn dollop of meddlesome mothering as Genie Klein, King’s loudly steadfast mom.

Tobin’s dashingly electric Goffin makes it easy to see why King falls head over heels for him. He’s full of talent, charisma and, most provocative of all, turbulence. His affairs with singers don’t endear him to us, but his instability isn’t simply a character flaw and may be inseparable from his manic genius.

The relationship between King and Goffin has that melancholy beauty that King channeled into such indelible songs as “So Far Away” and “It’s Too Late.” When Mueller’s King sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” near the end, a song with lyrics by Goffin, the joy of that inordinately fruitful, now terminated, romance is celebrated in music that won’t ever die.

‘Beautiful -- The Carole King Musical’

Where: Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions) Ends July 17

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: www.HollywoodPantages.com or (800) 982-2787

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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