Jessie Mueller had starred in a production of Harnick and Bock's She Loves Me and was just wonderful in the show, so much so that I've kept writing about her and talking about to to anyone who would trust my judgment. Then, she got a Tony nomination last year in the revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and was cast in a supporting role in the PBS Live from Lincoln Center production of Carousel. And I kept telling people that, really, honestly, this young actress I saw three years ago in a 140-seat theater was that good.
I just read that she has been starring on Broadway the past couple months in Beautiful, a jukebox musical based on the life of Carole King, using King's songs and others of that era -- and she plays...Carole King!
And if even that isn't enough for my three years of raves to be believed already, I pass along these words from Ben Brantley, the theater critic of the New York Times. It's important to know that he doesn't care for the show all that much, finding it too derivative of Jersey Boys and a bit bland throughout.
And then he writes --
Originality is clearly not this show’s strong suit.
With one very important exception. That’s Ms. Mueller, a Broadway star in waiting for several years, who here steps confidently into the V.I.P. room of musical headliners.
Let me qualify that. Much of what makes Ms. Mueller’s performance so touching is its projection of a lack of confidence. There’s a humility to Ms. Mueller’s Carole, part of whom wants only to be a good Jewish wife and mother, preferably in the suburbs.
…What’s extraordinary is how Ms. Mueller conveys that gradual transformation in every aspect of her performance. This includes most crucially her singing, which evokes Ms. King’s distinctively throaty, ever-yearning voice without mimicry. Most important, you never doubt the intrinsic connection between the singer — a woman we feel we have come to know intimately — and her songs.
Modesty is not the usual stuff of Broadway showstoppers. And if “Beautiful” never acquires the flashy momentum of “Jersey Boys,” it may come in part from the deferential gentleness of its heroine.
But when Ms. Mueller sings the show’s title song — sitting at a keyboard in, of course, Carnegie for the production’s finale — she delivers something you don’t expect from a jukebox musical. That’s a complex, revitalizing portrait of how a very familiar song came into existence, and of the real, conflicted person within the reluctant star.
You can read the whole review here.
But far, far better, you can see her here, below, singing and playing the title song when she appeared on the Today Show. As Brantley notes above, she is not doing an impression, but evoking the singing and spirit of the character, while making it her own performance. And as she notes herself in the clip, she took piano lessons for the role -- so I'm guessing she didn't even play before this! Methinks she does one heckuva swell job at it all...