BWW Review: BEAUTIFUL Lets the Audience Bask In the Fascinating Music of the '50s-'70s
Manila, Philippines--To manage everyone's expectations, "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" is not entirely about the life and music of the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. Although Carole King's emergence into the popular music scene is what the audiences will follow from start to end, we feel that this show has more to offer than just a summarization of King's life and musicography. This is not to accuse that the show's title is misleading ("Beautiful" is a song from her Grammy-winning album "Tapestry"). In fact, the other elements present in the show sufficiently give this production a rightful claim to that adjective in its title.
Apart from King's personal life (mostly about her relationship with husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin), this musical also exposes the hardships and struggles of song composers back in the day, when they literally knock on music producer's offices pleading for their songs to be chosen. And when a composer gets to be so lucky and as talented as King (she sold her first song to producer Don Kirshner when she was 16 years old), the next challenge is to come up with new chart-toppers. By using King's journey as a platform, this musical not only gives recognition to songwriters in general but also the much-deserved appreciation to the songwriting process.
But as we've mentioned, King (Kayla Rivera) and Goffin (Nick Varricchio) aren't the only composers featured in this show. In a way instrumental to Goffin and King's success is their friendship and healthy rivalry with another songwriting duo: Barry Mann (George Schulze) and Cynthia Weil (Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante). Unlike King and Goffin's characters who almost always figure in the more serious and dramatic aspects of their personal and professional undertakings, Mann and Weil's have a quirkier and less emotional partnership. From what we saw in this production, we feel the characters of Mann and Weil do steal some of the thunder from the two leads, probably more so in the middle of Act 2 when romance is starting to build up from their partnership, unlike King and Goffin who are beginning to reach the tipping point of their married life.
Schulze and Bradshaw-Volante ease into their roles more naturally than Rivera and Varricchio, but only because the latter have more demanding roles to portray. Varricchio does a good job of communicating Goffin's story arch. We notice him, scene after scene, carefully developing enough steam before his character throws an emotional outburst whenever he's dissatisfied with his work environment. But Varricchio's leading man status is dampened by the fact that he does not shine in any singing moment in the show, unlike Schulze who, at least, exhibits astonishing vocals (never mind the pretend guitar skills) in "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
Rivera, on the other hand, is at her best in all of her scenes with Varricchio, most especially in that scene where they co-write "Will You Love Me Tomorrow." Together, they make our hearts flutter since they appear to be such a charming couple on that stage. However, Rivera's portrayal somehow misses King's internal struggles. To name a few, her insecurities as a lyricist, juggling both family and professional life, and, ultimately, coming to a decision to be her own recording artist. In that scene, where Don Kirshner (Jamie Wilson) gives her encouragement that she's going to make it big in the recording industry frankly because she's a female songwriter who writes songs for women, it never occurred to us that the industry she works for is still not as welcoming to female artists. This observation points to either a weakness in Douglas McGrath's book or in the clarity of Bobby Garcia's direction. Because of these missed opportunities, we find ourselves even asking "so what then makes King's story extraordinary?" Rivera may have also lacked enough life experience to fully commit to a role that requires her to transform from being a simple Brooklyn native--with innate musical talent--to a wife with a crumbling relationship with her husband, and, ultimately, to a breakthrough recording artist performing for the first time in Carnegie Hall. Rivera understands the singer-songwriter vibe; she's also a strong vocalist. But in that, supposedly pivotal, scene where she's recording one of her signature songs, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," Rivera loses touch of why and to whom she's singing the song for.
What gives the audience enough spirit to sit through the entire show are the production's creative and design elements and some stand out performances from the ensemble members in featured roles. Leading the pack is the oh-so-beautifully-sounding band (led by conductor and musical director Farley Asuncion), which makes us swoon to every familiar standard ballad and gets us groove when the tempo gets faster. Faust Peneyra's elegant set design, made of symmetric and vibrant wallpaper patterns, also makes such a lasting impression. Among the short but notable performances are those delivered by Teetin Villanueva (as Little Eva) in a spectacular, eye-popping "The Locomotion" dance number, Rhenwyn Gabalonzo as one of the "Righteous Brothers," and Tim Pavino and Jep Go as two of the all-male singing group, "The Drifters."
In retrospect, this production fulfills its utmost objective, which is to let the audience bask in the beautiful music of the late 1950s to the early 1970s. This is, after all, a jukebox musical. But with Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's critically-acclaimed staging of "Jersey Boys" (also staged at the Meralco Theatre) in 2016 still lingering in our heads, we do feel this staging of the Carole King musical could be made more beautiful through time.
"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical" is a co-production of Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group and ABS-CBN. The show runs now until July 7. For tickets, call Ticketworld at (632) 891-9999 or visit TicketWorld.com.ph.