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‘Beautiful’ faces pain but stresses music and comedy

At its core, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” has always scrutinized marriage and infidelity.

While showcasing do-wop and rock ‘n’ roll hits of the mid-20th century.

Despite version 2.0 at the SHN Orpheum Theatre confronting the songwriter-singer’s pain, I was elated by a show that’s tighter, less choppy and vastly funnier than the first go-‘round.

Two songwriting teams — Carole King (Abby Mueller, left) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin, right) with their frenemies Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) sandwiched between them — are spotlighted in “Beautiful.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

Two songwriting teams — Carole King (Abby Mueller, left) and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin, right) with their frenemies Cynthia Weil (Becky Gulsvig) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) sandwiched between them — are spotlighted in “Beautiful.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

The rivalry and friendship of two songwriting teams — King and Gerry Goffin vs. Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann — has been deemphasized since I caught the pre-Broadway rendition in San Francisco three years ago.

Act 2 of “Beautiful” now plays up King’s journey leading to her smash album, “Tapestry” — a fascinating choice since the LP wasn’t even in producers’ minds when the show was conceived.

The journey, however, requires proficient acting chops.

Abby Mueller, who plays King, has them.

She offers measured hints of the chartbuster’s vocal styling (from age 15 through her famed Carnegie Hall concert) and fully executes her Brooklyn accent while showing agony caused by a philandering, mentally ill husband.

Improbably, Mueller, who’d performed on Broadway in “Kinky Boots” and in San Francisco for A.C.T.’s “1776,” is the sister of Jessie Mueller, who originated the role in the Bay Area and won a best actress Tony Award for the Broadway run.

Liam Tobin is appropriately intense as Goffin, King’s unstable mate.

He has a resounding voice, and is credible as a lyricist haunted by demons of non-fulfillment in spite of huge successes (including a string of No. 1 songs).

Ben Fankhauser as Mann and Becky Gulsvig as Weil effectively support the duo.

An alumnus of Broadway’s “Newsies,” Fankhauser’s the chief comedy foil.

Especially effective when blathering Mann’s hypochondria.

Gulsvig, who appeared on The Great White Way in “Hairspray” and “Legally Blonde,” has a penetrating Broadway-type voice that fits her role.

Suzanne Grodner impressively adds comedy as King’s mom, a Jewish smother-mother.

Yeah, the poignancy of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which is sung three times, choked me up for a minute or two.

But my overwhelming takeaway is that “Beautiful” is a feel-good show.

The opening night audience, in fact, may have been the happiest I’ve seen at an intermission. Why? Probably because the boomers had sung the bouncy hits over and over.

And they were thrilled to hear King’s songs recreated by the cast and played loudly by a dozen hidden musicians: “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “The Locomotion” (sung by Ashley Blanchet as Little Eva, King-Goffin babysitter), “One Fine Day” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

As well as biggies in the Mann-Weil songbook: “On Broadway,” “You’ve Love That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Walking in the Rain.”

Two women directly in front of me had a typical reaction.

They couldn’t sit still during the performance — their heads continuously bobbed and their bodies swayed from side to side when not bouncing up and down.

Portraying The Shirells in “Beautiful” are (from left) Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, Ashley Blanchet and Salisha Thomas. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Portraying The Shirells in “Beautiful” are (from left) Britney Coleman, Rebecca E. Covington, Ashley Blanchet and Salisha Thomas. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I was also amused by others whispering between numbers that the choreography of The Drifters and The Shirells was more exaggerated, more stilted, more fun than in the show’s first San Francisco run.

And that the set this time was glitzier but the songwriting cubicles in the musical factory at 1650 Broadway were less numerous and less exciting.

And that snippets of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and “Yakety Yak” had been trimmed.

Frankly, I hadn’t noticed.

I’d been concentrating instead on things producer Paul Blake had mentioned a few weeks ago.

Like the placement of “You’ve Got a Friend,” which is now serves as “a good-bye song” (when King leaves Manhattan for the West Coast).

According to Blake, the show’s organizers had previously tried the melody in a whole bunch of spots, including the beginning and end.

None worked.

“I Feel the Earth Move” also was a problem. It’s now not integrated in the body of “Beautiful” but follows the bows (and functions as a sing-along).

I’d heard Blake say, too, that he finally has “all the elements I thought I had back then” — back then being when the show was first done at the Orpheum in 2013.

Seems right.

“Beautiful — The Carole King Musical” will play at the SHN Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St. (at Hyde), San Francisco, through Sept. 18. Night performances, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: $45 to $212 (subject to change). Information: (888) 746-1799 or shnsf.com. 

Contact Woody Weingarten at voodee@sbcglobal.net or at www.vitalitypress.com/