It begins when you are sitting in Row “YY”, closer to our car in the parking lot than we were to the stage.
There is a definite “Distancing Effect.”
The sensation is compounded by the fact that not long ago, we saw the actual Carole King (in concert with James Taylor at the Hollywood Bowl) and felt the visceral connection between the singer-songwriter (or more accurately songwriter-singer) and her material, notwithstanding the fact that she was in many cases fifty years away from the original conception. She was an electrifying septuagenarian. (In contrast to some (unnamed) audience members who felt proud to just still be awake at that hour.)
Added to that is – which may some day be a musical of its own and one possibly worth seeing – the performer playing Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical currently in Los Angeles was Abby Mueller, the older sister of Jessie Mueller who won the 2014 Best Actress in a Musical Tony Award starring in the original Broadway production.
An unusuality of this nature sets my imaginatorial head spinning. What was I actually witnessing here, an older sister’s interpretation of a younger sister’s interpretation of Carole King? Or did the older sister “return to the source” and make her interpretation of Carole King different from her younger sister’s interpretation of Carole King? Or did she eschew “interpretation” completely, offering instead a studied Carole King “sound-alike”?
IMAGINED ABBY MEULLER RESPONSE: “The answer is neither, if “neither” can include three options, which I do not believe it can, but anyway. Although I have enormous respect for Carole King and an enormous respect for my younger sister – and I sincerely mean that; the detectable edge in my voice comes from the exhaustion of performing eight days a week rather than sisterly envy because she played the character on Broadway and I’m touring the hinterlands in a road company and that “Tony” should definitely be mine! …I’m sorry, where was I? Oh yes. What I am offering is neither an interpretation of my sister’s interpretation of Carole King nor a knockoff imitation of Carole King, but instead a “take” on the role that is organically my own. You understand?”
Whatever she was doing, I was two women away from the actual person.
So, between sitting in Row “YY”, my familiarity with the actual Carole King and watching the star’s sister’s traveling presentation, as the above title reflects, I felt “so far away”. From anything genuine, meaningful or emotionally involving.
Yet the audience around me was roaring with approval.
I get tired of not liking stuff everyone else is bowled over by (although the New York Times review for Beautiful was enthralled only by the lead actress’s performance, finding the production itself, to paraphrase his more erudite evaluation, artistically underwhelming.)
There is a moment near the end of the show where “Carole King” informs her best friends that she is relocating to Los Angeles, reassuring them of the eternality of their friendship by going to the piano and singing, “Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call”…
There is a lot of that in the show. Cues for songs from the “Carole King Playlist.” (It’s like the Abba musical but less danceable. And less fun.)
There are flashes – I don’t want to do a review; okay, just this… and maybe one more thing – eliciting hopeful sparks off possibility.
In an early scene reflecting the explosion of creativity emanating from the offices of a single mid-Manhattan office building, little boxes on the set light up, offering a cleverly arranged medley of hits from the fifties – “Splish Splash (I was taking a bath…)”, “Yakkety Yak (don’t talk back)” Oh, Carol (I am but a fool)” that momentarily brought the proceedings and my expectations for the evening toe-tappingly to life.
Then they went back to the accommodating girl with the prodigious talent for songwriting. Writerly Note: Recessive characters engender uninspiring storytelling. (And a boatload of “Sleeping Giant clichés.)
“She has to be accommodating for the ‘turn’ when Carole finally stands up for herself and the audience goes wild!”
Yeah, I know, but it’s boring and it’s predictable. I audibly groaned at the manipulation. (While the audience around me erupts with “You go, girl!” enthusiasm.)
What was my other “Theater Critic’s Hat” point?....
I forget. Summing up, the show just never got to me. (Maybe I’d have been more “into it” if I had seen the other sister.)
By the way – this may be picky but it confuses me. How is “You make me feel like a natural woman” (the crescendoing number in the musical) feministically empowering? Relying on someone else – imaginably a man – to make you feel like a natural woman. Shouldn’t you just feel like a natural woman, without outside affirmation? I’m just asking…
On the “up” side, the Beautiful’s musical numbers are the always welcome soundtrack of my youth. Though to be honest, I prefer hearing them sung by the original performers on PBS fundraisers (even if the original performers are dead, their replacements are at least the same age) rather than by age-challenged mimics in a Broadway musical.
There is a final reason the evening’s experience left me “so far away.”
Although the people who put this show together and I were ostensibly in the same business, I could never do “corny.” Seeing lightweight confections like Beautiful: The Carole King Musical I am dispiritingly reminded that “corny” invariably sells.
Leading me to wonder wistfully – and hardly for the first time – whether I had gone into show business by mistake.
It was an understandable career choice. I thought I was entering a field where originality was what we were supposed to be shooting for.
And there is no job called “Professional Grump.”