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Theatre Reviews Back in Toronto, Chilina Kennedy shines again in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Chilina Kennedy in Beautiful - The Carole King Musical (2018).

Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Mirvish

  • Title: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
  • Book by: Douglas McGrath
  • Words and music by: Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
  • Director: Marc Bruni
  • Actors: Chilina Kennedy
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: The Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 5

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Chilina Kennedy’s back on stage as singer-songwriter Carole King at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. What else do you really need to know?

The Canadian musical-theatre star has been delivering her heart-wide-open renditions of Tapestry tunes such as So Far Away, It’s Too Late and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical off and on for four years now, on Broadway and on a previous visit home to Toronto.

If you haven’t yet seen the former Stratford Festival star in this biographical jukebox show, she plays Ms. King from her days as a 16-year-old songwriting prodigy in Brooklyn, through her tempestuous personal and professional partnership with the lyricist Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach) writing chart-topping hits for the Shirelles and the Drifters at the Brill Building, to her ultimate triumph as a Grammy-winning solo artist (and solo mom) living in Los Angeles.

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Beyond nailing a theatrically magnified version of Ms. King’s distinct singing voice, Ms. Kennedy charms all the way through the show with her knack for self-deprecating humour. She repeatedly employs an endearing embarrassed, head-down grin that then segues into a smile as big as the Laurel Canyon when she throws her hair back in joyous laughter.

Ms. King, of course, is now an icon and recognized as one of the all-time musical greats – but she’s still not the type of hero you see on stage every day. Playwright Douglas McGrath depicts her as a woman who longs for kids and a quiet life in the suburbs alongside a fulfilling music career, a particularly unusual figure at a time when sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll came to be seen as markers of artistic authenticity.

Ms. Kennedy does a great job of making craft and kindness dramatically compelling – and, when the second act allows her to sustain an emotional arc, she’s truly moving, showing Ms. King slowly but surely embracing her own voice (and her own natural hair) as a singer-songwriter who needs a lyricist like a fish needs a bicycle.

Beautiful has been running on Broadway for more than five years in part because it’s a downright pleasure to watch a show where, for once, the troubled, womanizing, self-regarding genius – that would be Mr. Goffin – is second fiddle to the story instead of the focus of attention.

Directed slickly by Marc Bruni, this musical not only tells Ms. King’s story, however, but also does a neat job of chronicling musical shifts in America from the tail end of the 1950s through to the 1970s.

In addition to Ms. King and Mr. Goffin, we spend time with another romantically involved songwriting couple, composer Barry Mann (the very funny Jacob Heimer) and lyricist Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) – whose hits included You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling and On Broadway.

Although the touring production now in Toronto has been travelling for years and is popping into cities for short week-long runs, it’s sticking around at the Princess of Wales for a month due to the draw of Ms. Kennedy in an “exclusive encore engagement” in her hometown. (Here in Toronto, as a producer, she has started the Eclipse Theatre Company, which recently launched with a successful, sold-out short run of a semi-stage version of Kiss of the Spider Woman.)

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The rest of the Beautiful actors don’t seem worn out, however – and the cast here is as solid as in any previous production I’ve seen. I particularly enjoyed James Clow’s knowingly paternal performance as Brill Building music publisher and producer Don Kirshner, a.k.a. “the man with the golden ear.”

The only disappointment in this return engagement at the performance that media were invited to on Wednesday night was the up-and-down sound quality.

The balance between the singers in the early scenes featuring (overlong) peeks at the African-American groups and artists that Ms. King and Mr. Goffin wrote for seemed off at times. And then there was a persistent percussive sound of Ms. Kennedy’s hands slapping the keys on a series of phoney pianos on stage that somehow kept getting into the mix.

I offhandedly complained about a similar distracting sound in my review last time Beautiful was in town – but obviously it’s a recurring problem.

I also, again, was disappointed to hear synths instead of real strings in the orchestra in a triumphant moment in the first act that is all about Ms. King’s string arrangement of Will You Love Me Tomorrow for the Shirelles.

Perhaps with Mirvish Productions running a couple of sensational Toronto-only productions right now – Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away – the difference in quality of a tour is more apparent.

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But Beautiful remains a must-see if you’ve yet to catch Ms. Kennedy in this part that fits her like a glove.

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