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Chilina Kennedy, who plays Carole King in Beautiful, has a versatile voice but her greatest skill as a musical-theatre performer remains her fine comedic chops.

Joan Marcus/Globe and Mail Update

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Directed by
Marc Bruni
Actors
Chilina Kennedy
Music
Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil
Venue
Ed Mirvish Theatre
City
Toronto

Chilina Kennedy and Carole King do make beautiful music together.

Kennedy, a Canadian and long-time star of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals, played the iconic American singer-songwriter in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical on Broadway for two years.

And she's still giving a fresh performance now that she's transferred to the touring production of the same show that's just touched down in Toronto for the summer.

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This 2014 biographical musical follows the Tapestry hit-maker born Carol Klein, from her first record penned as a precocious 16-year-old songwriter in Brooklyn, through her marriage and professional partnership with lyricist Gerry Goffin (an intense Liam Tobin, another Canadian in the cast), to the moment where she went solo in life, and in music.

Beautiful's writer, Douglas McGrath, has imagined King as an essentially kind character, which might be boring were she were not also a funny one as well. She's a fish out of water during the seismic societal shifts of the 1960s – a suburbs-loving square writing pop music for teenagers as the earth moves under her feet.

Kennedy has a versatile voice that we've heard soar singing Leonard Bernstein in Canada, but here she digs deep to find a no-less-impressive rootsy sound for songs from It's Too Late to (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Her greatest skill as a musical-theatre performer remains her fine comedic chops; in Beautiful, she delivers what could be a repetitive series of oops-did-I-just-say-that jokes with consummate charm and a succession of big, self-deprecating smiles. She gets the laughs and the love.

As a fan of King's music, I saw Beautiful shortly after it opened on Broadway in 2014 – and thought it enjoyable as a live-on-stage episode of Behind the Music. On a second viewing, however, I've come to the conclusion that – like many a pop song written by King and company in the Brill Building– it is only deceptively simple.

McGrath has written a staccato, but sharp portrait of the move from a collective post-war mentality to an individualistic one through the lens of the similar move in pop music from songwriting factories like the Brill Building to the era of the singer-songwriter.

Like the TV series Mad Men, which also chronicles creativity and commerce in the same period and place, Beautiful doesn't take it on blind faith that this is a shift solely for the better. As it mustn't: how could a jukebox musical subscribe to the rockist myths that singers should write and sing their own songs without being hypocritical?

While the focus is squarely on King's journey, Beautiful cleverly compares and contrasts the songwriting careers of another couple who worked under Don Kirshner (James Clow), aka "The Man with the Golden Ear", at Aldon music.

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King and Goffin's foils are composer Barry Mann (an amusing Ben Fankhauser) and lyricist Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson).

Whereas Goffin and King marry quickly after an unexpected pregnancy, Mann and Weil begin as work partners – penning their biggest hits such as You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling well before she finally succumbs to his proposals of marriage.

Played with pert candidness by Olson, Weil dreams of writing sophisticated lyrics like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter (though the progressive tilt of her writing makes her more of a Yip Harburg) – and worries that a husband will hold her back. Little did she know that songs like On Broadway would actually eventually end up on Broadway in a musical.

King is the opposite – while she's driven in her career, she yearns equally for the 1950s idea of a suburban life with husband and kids. When she gets it, however, her husband starts to opt out – Goffin is always searching for a new sound and a new woman at New York City clubs.

The irony is that Goffin, most eager to embrace the (late) sixties, is let down by its libertinism, while King finds professional success in going it on her own – the show ending with her triumphant release of Tapestry in 1971 and a performance at Carnegie Hall.

Beautiful's structure and Marc Bruni's direction can feel repetitive at times. Especially in the first act, too many of the scenes involve watching the white, Jewish songwriters at a piano, tentatively playing and singing a few lines – and then segueing to the black pop or soul group like The Shirelles and The Drifters that made them famous, performing them in period style. As good as these tunes are, some should have been sacrificed for the show itself.

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Another couple of quibbles: Beautiful's sound design needs a tweak at the Ed Mirvish Theatre; it's okay that the actors aren't playing real pianos on stage, but we shouldn't be able to hear the keys clicking. And if you're going to have a running gag about a book called How to Orchestrate With Strings – it seems churlish not to have actual strings in the orchestra.

Beautiful (mirvish.com) continues to Sept. 3.

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