Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Theatre: Beautiful - The Carole King Story

As I have stated before, I usually don't like biographical jukebox "musicals", which for me are actually dramas interspersed with the songs made popular by the subjects of the biographies.  I consider them to be sub-standard to what I consider "real musicals" where original songs are written that convey or advance the plot.  I brought this bias with me when I watched Beautiful - the Carole King Story but surprisingly ended up being totally charmed by the performance.  It helped that I was familiar with and liked most of the songs, which are considered to be standards or classics today.

The show follows the life and career of singer/songwriter Carole King from age 16 when she sells her first song "It Might As Well Rain Until September" until age 29 when she plays Carnegie Hall after winning multiple Grammy awards for her hit album Tapestry.  At 17, King becomes pregnant by and marries her writing partner Gerry Goffin, and for the next decade they produced hit after hit including "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?", "Take Good Care of My Baby", "Up On the Roof" and "Locomotion", which was sung by their babysitter who took the stage name Little Eva.  Working at Dimension Records for Don Kirshner, King and Goffin became best friends with and competitors of fellow song writing duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.  Equally prolific, Mann and Weil wrote such gems as "On Broadway", "Walking in the Rain", "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place".

Reprising her role from Broadway, Canadian actress Chilina Kennedy gives a great performance as Carole King, singing gloriously, playing the piano with vigour and displaying a wide range of emotions.  She makes you chuckle as an insecure yet spunky teenager who can't believe that her secret crush is actually interested in her, then breaks your heart as she reacts to the disintegration of her marriage due to Goffin's infidelities.  The hypochondriac Mann and sassy Weil provide further comic relief with their competitive banter.  In the end, I found myself caring about all these characters, which is a necessary requirement for me to enjoy a show.

It was interesting watching as songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" are sung twice.  Initially while the composers are working on the music and lyrics, the songs sound fresh and raw.  By the time the tunes are sung by artists like the Shirelles or the Drifters, the songs are slick, polished, and orchestrated, and the performances are professionally choreographed.  This was explicitly referred to when Barry Mann first sings "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" in a much higher key and a faster tempo that sounded just strange and foreign compared to how the song eventually ended up.  Cynthia Weil notes that "the problem is the key .. it needs to be lower".  We then hear the version made famous by the Righteous Brothers that we know and love, or at least that was what was supposed to happen.

Unfortunately, at our performance there seemed to be something wrong with the sound system.  Every time one of the singers tried to belt part of a song, the sound came across as harsh and squeaky and even slightly out of tune.  This was especially pronounced when the two actors playing the Righteous Brothers came out to sing.  Instead of the deep, velvety tones expected for the beginning of this classic hit, the notes sung by the actor playing Bill Medley actually made me wince.  All I could think was that "they've ruined my favourite song!".  This must have been a one-time issue since it has not been mentioned in any of the other reviews that I've read about the show. 

Although most of the songs in Beautiful are sung as "stage performances" or as examples of works composed by one of the two writing pairs, the lyrics of a couple of the songs were actually integrated into the plot and because of that, they carried larger emotional impacts.  After singer Janelle Woods performs their song One Fine Day in an upbeat, peppy manner, Gerry Goffin informs Carole King that he is having an ongoing affair with Woods and does not intend to stop.  Devastated, King sings the refrain to One Fine Day in a heart-wrenching manner that seems so much more appropriate for the lyrics being sung than the way Woods sang it--"One fine day, we'll meet once more, and then you'll want the love you threw away before...One fine day, you're gonna want me for your girl".  When King finally decides to divorce Goffin and move to Los Angeles, she comforts her friends who she is leaving behind with the song "You've Got a Friend".  Although from a chronological perspective of the biography, King did not write this song until a couple of years later, it was the perfect song to advance the plot at this point of the show.

Watching this musical gave me new appreciation of the writing genius of Carole King.  I had not realized the wealth of hits that she has writing credits on until I heard one famous standard after another being performed throughout the evening.