BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL at Ottawa's National Arts Centre - Celebrating the Struggles and Successes of a Musical Legend
I was invited to the opening night performance of Beautiful - The Carole King Musical, the hit Broadway show celebrating the life and music of Carole King.
The show is infused with many number one hits of the era, written by King (Elise Vannerson) and her husband, Gerry Goffin (Ben Biggers), including "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "The Locomotion". In addition, King and Goffin had some intense competition through their friends and rivals, Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer). Weil and Mann's musical contributions include equally successful songs, such as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", which remains, to this day, the song with the most airplay on American radio.
King's biographical journey takes the audience from her humble beginnings as a smarty-pants, sheltered teenager from Brooklyn - whose mother wants her to teach music rather than write it - to a sensational musical hit making machine, together with Goffin. Despite their success, it wasn't all sunshine and roses and King's struggles echo those of many working parents trying to maintain a work-life balance. King longs for a suburban house and traditional family but her husband wants to experience the showbiz life and becomes less and less interested in family life (not to mention, monogamy). King, battling self-esteem issues, ultimately finds the courage to break out on her own. This liberation results in her moving to California and releasing the Grammy award winning album, Tapestry. The show ends on a high note, with King at her piano at Carnegie Hall, celebrating her well-deserved success.
The narrative is interspersed with musical numbers, with a repeating formula initially showing King and Goffin's (or Weil and Mann's) creative writing process behind the scenes and then showing the recording artist performing the number in full costume. This works well to keep the audience interested and break up what would otherwise be reminiscent of a made-for-television family drama. It also interjects well known artists into the foray, including The Shirelles, The Drifters, and The Righteous Brothers.
Vannerson and Biggers both gave strong performances in the lead roles, though they are usually the understudies for King and Goffin. If they were feeling the pressure of opening night under the scrutiny of the media, they did not show it whatsoever.
Whitehurst stole the show as the strong, self-assured Weil. She oozed confidence and shone in every scene she was in. Likewise, Heimer gave a powerful performance and the banter between Weil and Mann added some comic relief to avoid the story becoming too weighed down.
James Clow played Don Kirshner, the music producer that takes a chance on King's song, "It Might as Well Rain Until September" and gives her her big break. Clow's Kirshner is at once likable and slightly sleazy, feeding into the stereotypes of music producers and promoters of the time.
One thing that struck me was the great use of lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Not something I generally comment on, I specifically mention it here because the play of light added depth, focus and set the tone for every scene.
The orchestra brought the familiar songs to life. Especially entertaining was the "1650 Broadway Medley", a bombastic number near the beginning of the show that was full of spunk and snippets of hit songs to get everyone in the mood. I noted many audience members tapping their hands and feet to the music throughout the show - some were even quietly singing along. The artists representing the big names of the era were all wonderful to watch, with their matching costumes and choreographed dance movements. At times, it felt as though the audience was transported into the sixties and was actually witnessing these great artists live on stage.
Beautiful - The Carole King Musical is an uplifting show that celebrates the strength and success of, arguably, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Beautiful runs until January 6, 2019 at Ottawa's National Arts Centre. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to https://nac-cna.ca/en/event/18601.