By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the history of the Great White Way, there’s no shortage of musicals, jukebox and otherwise, that are defined by the showbiz gene: the drive for stardom, the magnetic pull of performance, the compelling need to leap out of the crowd of hopefuls and into the limelight whatever the cost.
The 2014 jukebox musical biography that’s arrived at the Jube in a fine Broadway Across Canada touring production, is in the oddball position of having a star who resists stardom at every turn. Until she doesn’t, of course. Or can’t.
In the climactic finale scene of Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, the heroine, played winningly by Sarah Bockel, is entering the stage at Carnegie Hall for the legendary Tapestry concert. And she hesitates for a second, as if she’s missed a cue, or it’s the wrong one and it’s too soon. She peeks out at the audience as if to say we must be as surprised as she is to find herself there.
Bockel embraces this tentative quality in an engagingly self-deprecating, warm, convincing performance as the un-flashy and vulnerable woman whose career is as startling as her life challenges are, well, old-fashioned normal — career vs. home life, crumbling marriage to an unstable philanderer, kids…. “I’m just a normal person,” says King resisting an invitation to join the band onstage at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village at a crucial Act II moment. “Who wants to hear a normal person sing?”
The answer, very evidently, is ‘lots of people’ since Beautiful has played on Broadway, in the West End, internationally and on tour for millions since 2015. There was an unmistakeable eau de nostalgie floating through the crowd on opening night at the Jube.
In the story of the early life and career of the iconic American singer-songwriter chronicled by Beautiful, King’s is a rare case of having stardom thrust upon her, instead of vice versa. And we’re in a position to savour the binary arc of Beautiful all the more in Douglas McGrath’s libretto since the King archive is an astonishingly ample catalogue of chart-toppers: songs you know, songs you might not even realize she wrote.
At first they were written in tandem with her husband Gerry Goffin for such artists as the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Righteous Brothers, the Monkees, Little Eva (their babysitter, really). The show includes Chains, which the Beatles covered on an early album. And then, in an act of female empowerment that was a groundbreaker in the new age of singer-songwriter reclamation, King took to the stage herself to perform and record her own hits — witness the stunning and durable success of her 1971 album Tapestry.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Beautiful follows a perky but determined 16-year-old Brooklyn kid, King née Klein, into the rock and-roll hit-making factory near Times Square — theatrically conjured in Marc Bruni’s production as a perpetual motion hive of musical activity, framed by a light-up proscenium (designer: Derek McLane with lighting by Peter Kaczorowski).
It’s the early ‘60s, and the teen songwriter sells a song to eagle-eared finger-on-the-pulse record exec Don Kirshner (James Clow), and meets the alluring young lyricist Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach). They team up, in work and life. And shortly thereafter, they have a No. 1 hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, recorded by the Shirelles — and a baby.
The fun of Act I is that the dazzling string of hits — by King and Goffin and their best friend/rivals Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) and Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst), also hit-makers par excellence — spring to life onstage in smartly choreographed (by Josh Prince) numbers by actors playing the artists who recorded them. The high-speed costume changes, the staccato pace … all very entertaining and playful. Heimer and Whitehurst have an amusing showbiz sass about them, and the interplay between the two couples is the infrastructure of the show.
Act II is the female empowerment act. As King’s personal life falls apart and Goffin’s behaviour becomes increasingly impossible, she struggles to find her own two feet onstage singing her own songs. The long-suffering King ditches him, finally (an applause-inviting moment), and goes solo. The songs have a kind of yearning simplicity (simple is hard, as someone says in this very musical) to them. And Bockel, whose voice, though not an imitation per se, has an array of interesting husky edges and King-esque angles to it, delivers them beautifully. Natural Woman is a knock-out.
McGrath’s script, though, thuds from time to time — the usual jukebox challenge of how to make an excuse for a song not look quite so much like … an excuse for a song. In Beautiful, it’s pretty obvious that narrative convenience wins over writerly elegance, for example, when on the cusp of her move to L.A., King tells her friends Barry and Cynthia she’s not going to say goodbye but instead she’s going to sit down at the piano and sing You’ve Got A Friend. There are other examples too; they jar because they’re only occasional.
The music, accompanied by forces that include a contingent of top local musicians, doesn’t have that problem. It’s a lavish evening of timeless songs. The sound, though, especially in Act I, errs on the side of a forward sheen that sometimes obscures the lyrics.
There’s a lovely performance at the centre of it all. Bockel finds the quiet drama in a woman who gradually discovers her own considerable strength and makes you glad to cheer her on. It’s without thunder — and that’s how the earth really moves under your feet.
Beautiful – the Carole King Musical
Broadway Across Canada
Written by: Douglas McGrath
Directed by: Marc Bruni
Starring: Sarah Bockel, Dylan S. Wallach, Alison Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer
Where: Jubilee Auditorium
Running: Tuesday through Sunday