For a couple of years now, Canadian musical-theatre star Chilina Kennedy has been so far away – playing the lead in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway.
On Monday, however, Mirvish Productions announced she'll be coming home: Kennedy will visit Toronto to reprise her acclaimed performance as the great American singer-songwriter when the touring production of the jukebox musical hits the Ed Mirvish Theatre in June.
"It's a nice opportunity to come home and have a little break," says Kennedy, who will be replaced by Abby Mueller in the Broadway production in March and have a couple months off to work on songwriting projects and renovations to her house in Stratford, Ont., before hitting the stage in Toronto. "I miss Toronto and I miss Canada."
Born to an army family and raised across the country, Kennedy rose through the ranks of Canadian theatre with astonishing speed before New York took notice. The Sheridan College graduate played Anne (of Green Gables, of course) and originated the role of Evangeline in the musical of the same name at the Charlottetown Festival before blowing away audiences at the Shaw Festival with her comic chops and her coloratura in shows such as Wonderful Town.
The actress then was poached by the Stratford Festival where she played Maria in West Side Story and Mary Magdelene in Jesus Christ Superstar.
It was the latter role that first brought Kennedy to Broadway, when Stratford's production transferred there in 2012. While that show was a financial flop, its cast of Canadians have found steady work south of the border ever since. Paul Nolan, who was Jesus, is now playing Billy Flynn in Chicago, his fifth Broadway part, while Kennedy has been starring in Beautiful since March, 2015.
"I don't think I could do any other role for that long," says Kennedy, who has got to meet – and even sing with – the real Carole King during the contract. "But there is something I learn from playing her every single day … I feel like I'm a better person when I'm playing her."
Much has changed for Kennedy since her last appearance on stage in Canada at a fundraiser in Stratford in 2014 – when she sang a couple of songs from Evangeline while nine months pregnant. ("I was literally about to give birth," she says.)
Now, Henry, Kennedy's son with fellow Stratford Festival veteran Jacob James, is two years old – and while the actress chatted with The Globe and Mail, she pushed the napping toddler in a stroller along the Hudson River near her apartment on the Upper West Side. "People talk about New York as being so unfriendly, but it's a great community here," says Kennedy, who recently performed in a concert called the Hillary Speeches and joined the Women's March in her adopted city.
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical – which won two Tony Awards in New York and another two Olivier Awards in London – tells the story of King from her days as a songwriter in the Brill Building to her emergence as the singer/songwriter that defined the genre with 1971's Tapestry. The musical had a surprising number of Canadians in the leads at this point – Jake Epstein, a former Degrassi star, originated the part of King's songwriting partner and husband Gerry Goffin on Broadway and is currently back in the role opposite Kennedy. In Toronto, meanwhile, Liam Tobin, who originally hails from St John's, will be playing Goffin – a part he played at the tour's launch. (Tickets go on sale on Feb. 4.)
Unfortunately for her Canadian fans, after Beautiful closes in Toronto in August, Kennedy will not return to Shaw or Stratford, but to New York for reasons she can't name at the moment – though she says, "I want to find a way in my life to have the balance between New York and home."
Good to hear – but doesn't anyone stay in one place any more?