A Stellar Cast and Production Make Beautiful: The Carole King Musical Worth Watching
The joy of watching a jukebox musical often rests on its creative contextualization of popular songs. The Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, for instance, juxtaposed ‘60s rock group The Four Seasons’ songs with key moments in their lives, driven by a Rashomon-inspired narrative featuring multiple narrators. Mamma Mia!, on the other hand, weaves an original story based entirely around ABBA lyrics.
Locally, we have the sublime Eto Na! Musikal nAPO! loosely telling the origins of the APO Hiking Society, with songs like “Batang-Bata Ka Pa” reimagined as the soundtrack to the lives of college students. PETA’s seemingly immortal Rak of Aegis turns kitschy (yet catchy) jeepney rock into biting commentary on patronage politics in the third world.
Kayla Rivera as Carole King
For all the awards and recognitions it’s won, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is disappointingly lacking in this department. The book, written by Douglas McGrath, barely manages to create real moments for the songs to stand out; the script does less to naturally weave the songs into its narrative than it does to hold a concert hiding behind a musical-shaped veil. More often than not, songs are introduced with the actors literally telling each other to listen to the songs they wrote, and it feels lazy.
Which is why the play’s Manila staging is a testament to the talents working with Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group. Despite the threadbare narrative and missed opportunities presented by the material, Beautiful’s local run is a wildly entertaining watch. Everything the company has creative control over—from the direction to the set design to its performers—lifts McGrath’s book from mediocrity to sheer spectacle.
The play follows King’s tumultuous relationship with husband and creative partner Gerry Goffin, and how it led to her coming into her own both as a songwriter and as a woman. To tell the story, director Bobby Garcia has created a seamless pastiche of 1960s sitcoms, variety shows, and concerts, where musical acts pop in and out of scenes that show their songs being written. Against the backdrop of Faust Peneyra’s set design—an eye-popping mix of wallpaper swatches characteristic of the decade—there’s an undeniable charm to everything we see on stage.
Kayla Rivera plays the titular role, growing from a teenybopper unsure of herself and her abilities to the raw, emotional storyteller King had become by the time she had written her seminal 1971 album, Tapestry. Rivera’s voice is a force unto itself, especially when she hits the low roars that embody King’s angst. Her performance is memorable—though it might have been more so had the script given her more room for nuance.
McGrath’s book, unfortunately, doesn’t pace King’s character growth all too well; her rise to self-assuredness seems to happen haphazardly throughout a series of vignettes toward the end of the second act. Rivera hits every musical and emotional note so well that a more gradual transformation would have showcased more of her considerable acting chops. Her reprise of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” is particularly heart-breaking, but moments like those are few and far between.
The script is, ironically, kinder to Nick Varricchio’s Goffin, allowing the actor to explore a wider range of emotions as King’s troubled husband. Varricchio’s ebb and flow between bravado and insecurity create a sympathetic foil to Rivera’s King, who struggles to keep her life from crumbling in the wake of Goffin’s instability. This unfortunately ends up making Goffin a much more compelling character than the star of the show, even if King gets considerably more time onstage.
Rivera as King and Nick Varricchio as Gerry Goffin
It should be noted that the script seems to play it safe with Goffin’s story. His drug addiction is handled with the lightest of hands, and his infidelity isn’t played up to be as complicated as the real-life Goffin’s was. To his credit, Varricchio appears to have researched his character fairly well, hinting at the darker tones the book was afraid to take on.
Beautiful also stars a pair of scene-stealers in George Schulze and Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, as rival song-writing duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil. As the hilarious hypochondriac Mann, Schulze is unrecognizable from the brutish redneck he played in his prior Atlantis production, Waitress. He is smart, sensitive, and almost-unbearably awkward, making him a wonderful contrast to his no-nonsense partner.
Bradshaw-Volante, on the other hand, is perhaps the most joyous character to watch; her sassy-yet-caring Weil offers layer upon layer of nuance, making her one of the most fully formed characters of the night. With tremendous vocal performances in scenes where Weil and Mann take the spotlight, the actress reminds audiences why she is one of Philippine theater’s most formidable performers.
Schulze's and Bradshaw-Volante’s chemistry with each other is unparalleled, and McGrath’s script helps them become an instantly lovable pairing. In fact, the two play off of each other so well that one wishes the Mann-Weil duo was given its own spin-off.
To give the rest of the cast proper commendations would be to give this review a few thousand words too many; not a single supporting character nor member of ensemble gives a subpar performance. The actors who make up the Shirelles, the Drifters, and the Righteous Brothers all sing their hearts out, as does Teetin Villanueva as Little Eva.
Of special note are Jamie Wilson’s Don Kirschner, a record producer who defies common tropes; assistant director Nelsito Gomez’s irrepressibly cheesy Neil Sedaka; and Maronne Cruz’s Betty, an all-too-fleeting spark of incandescence in the first act. Jill Peña hits some interesting notes as Janelle Woods, but is deprived of the opportunity to make an even stronger impact, given how weakly the book tackles the racism angle behind her character.
There’s the rub with Beautiful—Carole King’s life, amidst the milieu of 1960s New York, is rife with interesting stories to tell, and with countless opportunities for long-lasting sociocultural commentary. McGrath’s book, unfortunately, plays it safe to the point of sugar-coating. We never see how King and Goffin wrote “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” in a single night, after a passing producer spotted King on the street, pulled over, and asked her to craft a song for Aretha Franklin. Instead, we fast-forward to King, reluctant to include it in Tapestry, but doing so anyway at the egging of producer Lou Adler.
It’s never brought up that Goffin had fathered a child with singer Jeanie Reavis during his marriage with King, or how she found the strength to stick with him for five years afterward. We never learn that King’s debut album, Writer, was a flop, with Tapestry being her triumphant bounce back.
Beautiful’s thesis is that beauty can rise from misery; that the instability King suffered in her relationship with Goffin was a significant contributor to her creative renaissance; that her resilience led to the creation of some of the most unforgettable music in modern history. But because the book tries its damnedest to keep all these skeletons packed tight inside their closet, we’re only given a glimpse of how strong King truly was. Her growth in the play pales in comparison to how far she’d come in real life, and it’s a shame audiences don’t get to share in the depth of King’s emotional journey.
That isn’t to say that the script is terrible—there are more than a few cleverly written moments between songs. The story, however, is clearly secondary to the songs, making the show’s success entirely dependent on the quality of its musical performances. In this regard, the team behind Beautiful is peerless; it’s hard to imagine the play being this enjoyable without this specific cast, and this particular crew.
You may not walk away from Beautiful feeling as though you’d just witnessed a remarkable life unfold on stage, but you’d be hard-pressed to stop yourself from singing along, wiggling in your seat, and perhaps playing more of Carole King’s music on the drive home. For that alone, it’s a highly recommended watch.
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is currently showing at Meralco Theater, and will run until July 7, 2019. Tickets are available via Ticketworld.