CHILINA KENNEDY’S CAROLE KING ‘TAKES AN AGREEABLE JUKEBOX MUSICAL TO A HIGHER LEVEL’

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical begins with King at Carnegie Hall in 1971, all set to give the live premiere of the songs from her album Tapestry. See full article here: https://goo.gl/SB2mKs

Chilina Kennedy plays Carole King as shy and determined – sometimes by turns, often simultaneously. This is a bewitchingly real performance that, quite unpretentiously, takes an agreeable jukebox musical to a higher level. It both warms and wins the heart.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical begins with King at Carnegie Hall in 1971, all set to give the live premiere of the songs from her album Tapestry. She pauses, almost before starting, to muse aloud on the unlikelihood of being on such a stage, so near and yet so far from her beginnings in Brooklyn, all set on being a songwriter even while her divorced mother was nagging her to go for something safe like teaching. And then, to nobody’s surprise who’s ever been to a theatre before, we are transported to that Brooklyn home, with the 16-year old Carole gaining permission to go to New York, having persuaded her mom that she writes better tunes than Neil Sedaka.

King, as the show will tell us, eventually did the archetypal ‘60s thing and moved to California; so her Carnegie concert was something of a homecoming. In the touring production that’s come to Toronto, that really resonates. Kennedy, the outstanding musical-theatre performer of her Canadian generation, has been working in the U.S. for the last few years, two spent in New York in this very role, which she took over from the actress who created it. Now she too has come home, and many members of the audience must be wondering how we can possibly keep her from going away again.

To return to the story: young Carole takes the subway (we assume that’s how she went) to the song factory at 1650 Broadway where it seems that all the hit songs of the late 1950s, from “Splish Splash” to “Yakety Yak,” are being auditioned simultaneously; they go together remarkably well. A famous and unexpectedly accessible publisher, Don Kirshner, agrees to listen to her and likes what he hears.

She then enters into two important relationships. One is with a high-school senior named Gerry Goffin for whom she has pined from afar. He becomes, in rapid succession, her lyricist, boyfriend and – after he’s gotten her pregnant – husband. The other is with the songwriting duo of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (in this complementary case, she does the words and he does the music) who become Goffin and King’s friendly rivals. One wonders if in real life the rivalry was as invariably and invincibly friendly as this show makes it out to be, but then it does depict just about everyone in the music business as incredibly nice.

A partial exception is Goffin who, even as King devotes herself to maintaining their collaboration and raising their two daughters, gets into – and gives in to – drinks and drugs and other singing ladies. When I saw the show in New York, I dismissed the handling of these issues in Douglas McGrath’s book as shorthand melodrama. This time around it seems to me just about the right weight. It helps that Liam Tobin’s performance, brooding in and lashing out, is far better than that of the actor whom I saw playing opposite Kennedy on Broadway. Indeed the standard overall is higher here than it was there. If James Clow never made me believe in the show’s eccentric Santa Claus of a publisher as a real person, I grew to accept him as an amusing fiction; while it’s hardly Suzanne Grodner’s fault that her Mama Klein resembles an Ethel Merman deprived of song while handed all the weakest jokes.

Mann and Weil contrast with Goffin and King by taking forever to get married but with longer-lasting results. They’re played by Ben Fankhauser and Erika Olson as a matched pair of neurotics: he a schlumpy hypochondriac, she a smart sophisticate, both of them are excellent. It may seem odd in a show that’s billed and constructed as King’s musical to find their songs given almost equal prominence with hers, but it’s good to hear such up-from-poverty numbers as “On Broadway” and “Uptown,” though the latter is given sadly short shrift.

The Goffin-King catalogue has most of its famous entries in place, though “Go Away, Little Girl” is notably absent; maybe it was thought sexist. The show’s main strategy with the early songs of both teams is to have a song run through by its authors, and then handed over to replicas of the coiffed and uniformed groups who had the hits: the Shirelles, the Righteous Brothers and, most prominently here, the Drifters. Josh Prince, the choreographer, has staged them as witty spoofs of the original routines. Or maybe they’re exact replicas that today look like spoofs. Carole and Gerry’s babysitter becomes Little Eva, doing The Locomotion: a showbiz legend that should be apocryphal but apparently isn’t. Marc Bruni’s direction moves all this smoothly along.

Dress-styles faithfully change as the story moves through the 1960s into the 1970s. As if in acknowledgment of a new era, our four heroes do more of their own singing, though only in the comfort of their own homes and offices. One song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” even functions as plot material.

Finally, King is persuaded to beat the threatening new wave of singer-songwriters by joining them. She’s reluctant at first; “who,” she asks a sympathetic musician “wants to hear a normal person sing?” To which he replies, “uh … other normal people?” It’s the best dialogue line of the night. Tapestry is treated as if it were King’s professional singing debut. In fact she’d had a hit single years before with “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” a song presented here as if it were all her own teenage work, written even before she met Gerry. The show takes a Hollywood-biopic view of facts and chronology.