As an art form, theater, it can be argued, bears the heaviest artistic burdens. The obvious challenges include the extremely collaborative nature of the whole thing, the domino effect of every on-stage mistake, the exhaustion that comes with each night's performance, the lights, the sounds, the whole shebang of theatric production. So imagine, now, the weight of telling the story of one of the greatest songwriters of her time, in a way that does her eclectic portfolio justice. This, while appeasing both the hardcore devotees and the less zealous people who were dragged along for the ride, both comprising an audience that came to feel the very earth move under their feet.
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This is the challenge Atlantis Theatrical takes on in their production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Currently showing in Meralco Theater until July 7, it portrays the early life and career of the incomparable Ms. King, and how many of her greatest hits—whether she sang them herself or gave them to doo wop artists from the 60s, now lost to time—stem from a happy, sad, thrilling, testing life.
In a way, Atlantis’s job is almost easy. The most amateurish, low effort thing to do would be to play the hits and go, and that kind of performance would still rock the house. But we ain’t here to watch a cover band. This is theater, baby. And while Beautiful has its soaring moments, a musical is made of more than just its highest notes.
I understand that this is not meant to be the kind of theater production that warrants much spectacle or bedazzlement. Director Bobby Garcia understands this, and he worked with the source material he had. Faust Peneyra’s work on this production’s set design is visually arresting without going overboard, and when musical director Farley Asuncion leads the orchestra into the first few notes of the overture, you know that you’re in for some kind of wonderful.
Still, many things about Beautiful come off as flat or stagnant. There’s this narrative pattern to the first act where Carole King (played by Kayla Rivera) pitches a song to music publisher Don Kirshner (played by Jamie Wilson). Don gives the song to whatever group is climbing the charts at that moment, like The Shirelles or The Drifters. When the doo-wop group comes in, the lights change and the stage gets all glittery and what we’re treated to is a compelling demonstration of how the heart and spirit of great art can transform when filtered through the commercial hit-making machine. It’s a razzle-dazzle display, and the musical’s mood peaks. But when we get back to the mundane goings-on at the 1650 Broadway office, the magic recedes, and the songs performed feel more like talking heads that just have to maintain pitch perfection.
And let's talk about Kayla Rivera for a minute. She has the unenviable position of having to fill some unreasonably big shoes. She has to hold her own not just as someone playing Carole King, but as someone whose performance will be compared to Jessie Mueller’s early Broadway run. Expecting anyone to match Mueller’s timbre-perfect mimicry would be unfair, but still, I can’t help but feel that Rivera could’ve gone for a different plan of attack.
Rivera’s voice is full-bodied and chocolatey, and would probably bode better in a musical about Amy Winehouse, or even JoJo. (A JoJo musical! Can you imagine?!) That would explain why her voice works with songs like “It’s Too Late,” and “Chain of Fools,” which groove and swing. Due props as well to her for playing up, to great effect, the natural sultriness of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” But more folky inflections, or an airy tone, would’ve helped in the likes of “So Far Away,” or even “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”
This is obviously not a knock on Rivera, whose portrayal has ineffable charm. And it’s definitely not a diss against vocal director Manman Angsico, whose guidance shines in the performances of the rest of the ensemble. Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante and George Schulze, playing Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, will make you wonder why doo-wop and rockabilly aren’t still a thing, all while demonstrating on-point comedic timing. And Maronne Cruz absolutely kills it in “Uptown.” And when you get to the part where everybody harmonizes in “You’ve Got A Friend”? Chills. But the parts where the actors are just talking? They just feel like parts of the script everybody has to get through before we get to the fun part with the actual music.
Despite the little misfires, the show will make your heart tremble, as a fitting tribute to one of the greatest songwriters of all time. Emphasis on “all time”—one of Beautiful’s obvious strengths is the way it thoughtfully highlights the vastness of King’s portfolio, and is therefore a necessary watch for anyone who’s listened only to Tapestry.
You can come into Beautiful knowing just two or three Carole King songs and come out hungry and inspired, eager to devour the rest of her discography. Which is all to say, the musical does what it needs to do. But it could’ve done a little more.