Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and the power of great pop songs
by DREW ROWSOME- Production photos by Cylla von Tiedemann
Who wants to hear a normal person sing?
Other normal people?
First of all, Carole King is anything but "normal." The singer/songwriter had a string of hits that is hard to rival, and a musical where the audience arrives humming the songs has a tremendous advantage. Carole King's songs, whether co-written or solo, are so ubiquitous and catchy, that every audience member will have a familiar favourite, or two or three, somewhere in the score. And a new favourite that will be added during the course of the evening. The instant the opening piano chords of "I Feel the Earth Move" thunder into the darkness to open the show, the audience for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical roars with excitement and pleasure.
As a jukebox musical/biography, Beautiful is a slick and fast-paced show. The exposition is unobtrusive, often quite funny, and gives the feminist-lite fable more gravitas than it is able to support. Because of course the music is where the passion soars, in fact that is one of the main metaphors of Beautiful, that the characters are unable to express themselves except in song. That the songs are sung, until King's dramatic turnaround, by other people creates a disconnect that when it works, works beautifully.
Some of the best moments, and it is a gimmick that never fails in this production, one of the songwriters will be noodling at the piano before lights descend, backdrops materialize and clothing is transformed into shimmering costumes. The clever and always-in-motion set also allows for several of the songs to be seen in rehearsal before suddenly exploding into a full-blown production number. And, given the '60s themed atmosphere, the loving parody of the long-lost art of television variety shows is heartwarming and heartbreaking (just imagine what Sonny & Cher, Flip Wilson, or even Donny & Marie could have done with today's technology).
That the songs are thematically linked to the plot is also nicely done. The connections are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but always to be discovered instead of spelled out. When King sings in the faux-finale, "You're gonna find, yes you will/That you're beautiful, as you feel," the audience gushed with almost as much passion as when she found her backbone and dumped her douchebag husband. However it is occasionally problematic when Beautiful attempts to gloss over the racial politics that are unavoidable in 2017 (and must have been in the '60s as well). The songwriters are very middle-class white, most of the song interpreters are non-specifically black. No matter how one interprets it - fantasy projection, colourful illustration - it is disturbing.
It is also disturbing because the ensemble has some great songs that it is not given quite enough to sell. The choreography is girl group/Motown tight but the vocals lie in that weird place between powerful emotive pop and powerful emotive musical theatre. The compromise of adding bits of filler melisma does neither genre any favours and just distorts the gorgeous melodies. One can practically feel the ensemble itching, striving, to cut loose and belt, but that would, of course, overpower the white singer/songwriter and her story. While probably historically accurate, it is theatrically a bit of a tease. When Traci Elaine Lee gets only two stanzas of the extraordinary "Uptown" wrapped around dialogue rehashing forgettable relationship problems from the main four characters, I wept tears of frustration.
That is not to say that Chilina Kennedy (The Little Mermaid) is not a powerhouse, she manages to evoke King's downhome "normality" while also adding a bit of vocal edge and grit. Erika Olsen as Cynthia Weil gets a few chances to shine vocally, but mostly plays the snappy girlfriend with the quick wit, which makes sense for a lyricist. Also providing comic relief (and that spitfire exposition) are Ben Fankhauser as a hyperly hypochondriac, and deep-voiced James Clow as a prankster Don Kirshner. But it is Suzanne Grodner as King's mother who grabs the lines that come her way and nails them to the back wall of the theatre with Borsch Belt aplomb.
Liam Tobin (Cannibal The Musical, Into the Woods) has the toughest role, particularly when the years fly by so quickly. He is a seductive potential bad boy, then a philanderer, then a victim of his father's failure as a playwright, and then he jumps off a roof before repeating. That Tobin manages to create a through-line of sorts - while also doffing and un-doffing his shirt distractingly - is credit to his skill. As was the malevolence with which he was greeted at the curtain call, a complete contrast to the love that flowed towards the stage whenever Kennedy broke the fourth wall and, as King, played straight to the audience.
Neither as brazenly camptastic as the best/worst jukebox musicals, nor as deliciously lurid as a Behind the Music special, and not quite as intimate or cathartic as the tribute concert some seemed to be expecting, Beautiful is a comfortable hybrid that reflects King's oeuvre and persona. We went in singing, we sang along, we came out singing a little louder, and that makes for a very satisfying evening at the theatre.
Beautiful: The Carole King Story continues until Sun, Sept 3 at the Ed Mirvish Theatre, 244 Victoria St. mirvish.com