By Douglas McGrath
Directed by Marc Bruni
A David Mirvish Production at the Ed Mirvish Theatre
July 5-September 3, 2017
Glancing at all the song titles in the house program (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” etc.) causes you to believe that this is going to be yet another formulaic jukebox musical masquerading as a musical biography, and you wonder if it could ever top Jersey Boys in this regard. Well, you would be right in some ways, and dead wrong in others. For one thing, the subject is a woman, not a male singing group; for another, she marks the start of a new era in the pop music world (the so-called Brill Building era of records aimed at youth); and for a third, her hit songs are legendary, with more than 400 of her compositions recorded by over 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles and six Grammys. Top this, Frankie Valli, if you could!
There are other reasons why Beautiful is not just another Jersey Boys in sum total. Des McAnuff used enough showbiz Vaseline to turn a paper-thin libretto into a hit Broadway show but audiences got only the barest hint of biography about the Four Seasons. Here, Marc Bruni’s dazzling production (with colourful scenic design by Derek McLane, era-defining costumes by Alejo Vietti, mood-appropriate lighting by Peter Maczorowski, and absolutely pointed choreography by Josh Prince) offers far more quality than Jersey Boys did. McAnuff’s show was slick enough for its content; Beautiful’s slickness is married to greater matter and craft. Douglas McGrath’s libretto has a witty gloss applied to what is thicker paper. Sure, it is easy to make bullet point details in his Carole King story. The libretto begins in her teenage years in a Brooklyn household dominated by her mother, a playwright manqué with a strong bias against show biz, who wants young Carole to become a teacher. The story shows how the girl always had a gift for composition, and the sequences showing her in the act of creation also establish her as her very own conductor who knows exactly what tone, register, tempo, and musical instrumentation is required for a particular lyric. McGrath’s book encompasses King’s eager romance with young, handsome Gerry Goffin, a chemist turned lyricist well above the usual cut of pop songwriters, their doomed marriage (because of his adulteries and neurotic mood swings), their collaboration and friendly competition with the song-writing team of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, and the swift evolution of King’s awesome success, starting with the records produced by savvy Don Kirshner. It ends, as do most bio-musicals these days, with a triumphant concert (this one is at Carnegie Hall).
But throughout the fluff and predictable plot points, McGrath’s wit flashes forth, sometimes in Carole King’s feminist self-confidence after a very naïve but endearing innocence, sometimes in Kirshner’s acid realism, and usually, thankfully, in the almost throwaway satire by Mann and Weil, a sort of jukebox Comden and Green. When brilliant Chilina Kennedy observes: “I have the right amount of body. It’s just not arranged well,” she underscores King’s sweet ordinariness and gauche innocence. When Erika Olson’s sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued Cynthia Weil hears the unfurling catalogue of questions in “Who Put the Bomp,” she is quick to comment: “It’s certainly inquisitive.” And, most witty of all, is Ben Frankenhauser’s Barry Mann, the one responsible for that catalogue that goes: “Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp/who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong.” But if this lyric of his is on automatic inanity, Mann has other moments of neurotic wit that verge on Woody Allen’s mode of humour, as when he says with a straight face: “If I’m going to be miserable, I might as well have sex to go with it.”
Bruni’s show biz skill comes to the fore in the production numbers that begin in a studio with the original composers scratching out their drafts, which burst into vivid life by professional groups such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers, et cetera, although Neil Sedaka gets sent up a few times by John Michael Dias, who does triple duty, playing L.A. record producer Lou Adler as well as a member of The Righteous Brothers. Although the transitions are formulaic, they cleverly make connections between genesis and incarnation, as they follow the grain and temper of a passing era, and mark the growth of their title character’s confidence and skill. But this virtue would not have the weight it does without Chilina Kennedy, a most gifted singer/actress, whom Broadway has embraced as one of its own, and whom Canadians can applaud on her much-anticipated return home. The greatest West Side Story Maria and Jesus Christ Superstar Mary Magdalene, a wonderfully poignant Evita, and an expressively comic Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Kennedy has achieved well-deserved stardom. She shows no ego as a performer, or only what is dictated by a script, and her acting is beyond reproach—unlike that of her counterpart, fellow Canadian, tall, handsome Liam Tobin whose singing as Goffin is stentorian and whose acting is in need of a straitjacket. Her Carole King is initially a shy, insecure, and self-effacing teenager, Jewish in a lowkey, casual way, and has music in every bone and fibre of her being. Truth to tell, Kennedy probably sings better than King, but a tad short on throatiness, though overflowing with genuine feeling for a lyric and yearning for meaning in the tumult of life. Like all great singer performers, she knows just how to phrase a lyric so that it vibrates in memory. Kennedy can turn an intimate, soul-unburdening lyric into a genuine cri de Coeur, so her portrayal has emotional depth and truth. As the musical charts the passage of time and incident, her costumes and wigs change, and so does her innate emotional weather. She’s just great—and nostalgia for the great Carole King has nothing to do with it.