Broadway is changing, Once upon a time, the Great White Way was the incubator for plays and musicals (dramatic and humorous) that stirred the senses as well as the intellect. Then producers, driven by box office potential, began to diversify, realizing there’s gold to be mined in shows appealing to the younger masses immersed in the top 40 songs charted weekly.
Therefore, theatre became a stage for the “jukebox musical”. Creations by Porter, the Gershwins, Rogers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Kander and Ebb, etc. had to make room for shows by pop composers, teen idol singer/songwriters, as well as female and male vocal groups. “Dreamgirls,” “Mama Mia,” and “Jersey Boys” became theatre hits, drawing new bodies into “the thea-ta” who discovered the atmosphere is not “hi-falutin” and “hi-brow” as imagined but eminently entertaining in a sort of “man on the street” manner.
The most recent show flying the ”jukebox musical” banner is “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” now on stage in Toronto. Obviously, music is the big attraction, but so is Canadian Chilina Kennedy who has played the title role the past two years on Broadway and will rejoin the New York production following the Toronto run. Prior to her “Beautiful” commitment, Kennedy was cast as Mary Magdalene in the 2012 “Jesus Christ Superstar” Broadway revival. A veteran of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, Kennedy has served three years at each facility. She was last seen in Hamilton in the 2014 Theatre Aquarius production of “Mary Poppins.” The multi-talented singer/songwriter has a busy life, as performer, wife, and mother.
In “Beautiful,” Chilina guides us through King’s life, from timid 16-year-old girl to superstar playing Carnegie Hall. The curtain rises and falls on that concert triumph, her story sandwiched in between.
Memories for this observer, as a radio disc jockey in the sixties, I played King’s top hits “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” and “It’s Too Late,” composed by King and her husband/writing partner, Gerry Goffin. Another chart-topper, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” was written by their longtime friends Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The book artfully describes the emergence of American pop in the 1960s, when the two couples toiled with fellow songwriters shopping their wares to hard-nosed music publishers and record producers. It wasn’t easy.
Theatrically, the show is stylish, a well crafted telling of Carole King’s rise from a romantic and productive song-writing partnership with Gerry Goffin to a top singing star after their broken marriage and her best-selling, breakthrough solo album “Tapestry” in 1971.
I admired Kennedy’s interpretation of school-girl Carole Klien, brimming with innocence and ideas, to Carole King as mature mother who could no longer just service other stars but had to assert a voice of her own. She’s spot on in the role, showing the limited vulnerability one might expect of an emerging musical talent, yet confidently striding forward. Her climb to the top hits a snag when she leaves the manic-depressive Goffin, who has been dallying outside their marriage. Kennedy solidifies the character with a built-from-scratch determination reviving the singer’s climb to the top. The actress makes it seem easy without false sentiment, soulfully stamping an authenticity that moves her away from a tribute-act impersonation. Kennedy’s voice soars as measured against King’s technical vocal abilities, moderating her sound to match an unassured King during her early years. She reaches into her soul to grasp the lyrics exposing raw bittersweet emotions.
Sounds-of-the-Sixties nostalgia is awash in a show that resonates as a concert performance but looks at home on stage. The narrative, enhanced with dramatic licence, has bite, spotlighting a woman who believed in herself, and despite setbacks has emerged as a cultural icon in popular music. A hushed house silently approves Kennedy’s rendering of the singer’s burdensome early years, but bursts out with hearty hosannas as her career flourishes.
This jukebox musical ignites sparks, standing alongside “Jersey Boys,” “Dreamgirls” and “Mamma Mia” as box office and critical stage successes. There’s a hint of gender politics in the narrative, exposing a 60’s era where girls played songs but not recognized as composers. It was also a time when race was a factor faced by black hopefuls in the pop music world. Is it any different today?
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” a rhythmic celebration of a woman making a melodic statement, is playing at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre through September 3rd.