A decade of hits rivaling those in “Jersey Boys” and “Mamma Mia!” in terms of boomer nostalgia value is the estimable main selling point of “Beautiful — The Carole King Musical,” which despite its title is semi-evenly divided between songs by two creative/domestic partnerships, Gerry Goffin/King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. There’s a lot to like in this unpretentious jukeboxer: Douglas McGrath’s book is better with sly laugh lines than serious matters of the heart, but with Jessie Mueller’s winning Carole and so many ’60s golden oldies briskly packaged in Marc Bruni’s warm, lively production, imminent Broadway prospects look upbeat if not sky-high.
Bookending the show is Carole at a grand piano on the Carnegie Hall stage in 1971, when her second solo album “Tapestry” was on its way to becoming one of the best-selling albums of the rock era. Sporting long frizzy hair and a peasant dress, she cuts an Earth Mother figure apt for her music’s confessional yet entirely accessible pop soul/soft rock canon which defined the early Me Decade’s “singer-songwriter” vogue. But as the flashback majority of “Beautiful” reveals, she’d spent ten-plus prior years in the background primarily writing for black R&B stars and vocal groups in the employ of producer/publisher/promoter Don Kirschner (a cheerfully brusque Jeb Brown).
She and lyricist Goffin (Jake Epstein) had met at college when she was just 16 (she’d skipped a couple grades), their creative collaboration soon turning into something else. When Carole got pregnant, they “did the right thing” and got married. Becoming best friends and friendly rivals with another thrown-together songwriting duo, glam career-focused lyric writer Weil (Anika Larsen) and genial hypochrondriac composer Mann (Jarrod Spector), they see one hit after another race up the charts, sung by everyone from the Drifters and the Shirelles to their teenage babysitter, known as Little Eva.
Having fun with the era’s penchant for uniform duds and dance moves among such acts, the first half of “Beautiful” builds to a peak with Little Eva’s novelty hit “The Loco-Motion.” That first-and-last choreographic highpoint for the evening is performed back-to-back with a great song, Mann-Weil’s “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” sung by actors playing the Righteous Brothers. (The able ensemble members impersonating these stars aren’t specified in the program or press materials.)
Shorter second act could use a production number with the oomph of “Loco-Motion” — perhaps “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which if performed by a quartet of ersatz Monkees would not only lighten things up but work a lot better than Mueller’s current rendition. (It makes little sense Carole would sing that dig at suburban banality anyway, since Gerry’s the dissatisfied one.)
The emergence of marital discord as the narrative focus feels pedestrian, partly due to some cliched dialogue. But mostly it’s because Epstein’s Goffin hasn’t had room to develop as a complicated character — he goes from bland nice guy to grousing, infidelity and a nervous breakdown without ever really establishing a distinct personality. By contrast, an elegantly witty, big-voiced Larsen and often delightful Spector (who makes little impression musically until a terrific “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”) nimbly fill out their character types, while Mueller (Broadway’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) is by turns soulful, sweet and sharp, but always endearingly the nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn. Her vocals echo King’s straightforward warmth without outright mimicry.
Derek McLane’s scenic design of swiftly moving platforms and panels, occasionally reaching up to a second tier, reflects the bind of a show that’s both earnest bio-drama and encapsulated pop nostalgia — it’s bright and efficient but hesitant to commit too much one way or the other. Other design contribs are savvy. Steve Sidwell’s arrangements straddle retro and contemporary sounds to generally fine effect, ably played Jason Howland’s twelve-member orchestra.