Friday, January 24, 2014

NYC Theater:"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"; Frank Langella in "King Lear"

Book by Douglas McGrath; directed by Marc Bruni
Performances through October 5, 2014
Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

King Lear
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Angus Jackson
Performances through February 9, 2014
BAM Harvey Theatre, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY

Mueller as King in Beautiful (photo by Joan Marcus)
The new musical about Carole King, Beautiful, is strangely schizophrenic: unwilling (or unable) to commit to King’s own story—as if it wasn’t dramatic or “sexy” enough on its own—book writer Douglas McGrath juggles myriad gimmicks to keep the audience interested. We’re first introduced to Carole (a perfectly cast Jessie Mueller) playing piano and talking to us directly before launching into one of her loveliest heartbreak songs “So Far Away”; then, we see her as a 16-year-old writing songs at home.

Soon, King and lyricist/romantic partner Garry Goffin—whom she meets cutely at school—are writing hit tunes for rock’n’roll’s Tin Pan Alley at 1650 Broadway, led by impresario Don Kirschner. But instead of concentrating on King’s own career, which leads to her writing and recording 1970’s Tapestry, one of the seminal rock-era albums, Beautiful meanders through the ‘60s pop world, giving the duo’s friendly rivals, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, an inordinate amount of stage time—including several of their tunes—while turning itself into a semi-jukebox a la Motown: The Musical, which co-opted the great soul singers, by presenting reasonable facsimiles of The Drifters, the Shirelles and Little Eva performing Goffin-King hits like “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “The Locomotion.”

This assembly-line parade of hits—only Neil Sedaka’s brief appearance chirping his mindless hit “Oh Carol” is done cleverly—bespeaks a show desperate to please its baby-boomer audience with recognizable hits rather than creating a compelling story musical. And, after a first act mainly given over to covers of covers of Goffin-King tunes (at least we don’t get fake Beatles doing “Chains” or—after intermission—ersatz Monkees doing “Pleasant Valley Sunday”), the second act hunkers down to tell King’s tale: her divorce from Goffin and eventual emergence from her performing shell to become one of the first high-profile solo singer-songwriters.

It all goes over painlessly enough. If set designer Derek McLane relies too heavily on the erector set blueprint of Next to Normal and Newsies, he still uses it adroitly; and if Josh Prince’s choreography is nothing special, Marc Bruni’s direction is adequately unfussy. Of the main performers, Jeb Brown makes an amusingly jaded Kirschner, while Anika Larsen’s Weil and Jarrod Specktor’s Mann are a plucky pair of sparring partners; too bad Jake Epstein (Goffin) and Liz Larsen (Carole’s mother) give platitudinous portrayals.

But Jessie Mueller’s Carole—when not on the sideline while others are in the spotlight—is the whole show. Although Mueller is saddled with a heroine simultaneously mousey and brainy, shy and self-deprecatingly witty—she spits out enough one-liners to make Carole a King of standup comedy—her soaring voice is front and center of a compromised musical biography.

Langella in King Lear (photo: Johan Persson)
From Carole King to King Lear: Shakespeare’s greatest, bleakest tragedy has been done in New York City often in the past couple decades, but—whether the titular title role is taken by actors as varied as F. Murray Abraham, Kevin Kline, Sam Waterston, Derek Jacobi, even Christopher Plummer—I’ve yet to see a complete performance of one of the most difficult roles in the Shakespearean canon.

This is a king with three daughters, whose youngest, Cordelia, is obviously genuinely loving, while older Regan and Goneril are obviously not. But when he decides to divide his kingdom among them and only asks for “proof” of their love to get their share, the other two are phony while Cordelia is guilelessly truthful. Needless to say, Lear rages against her humility and banishes her, setting in motion a chain of events that will end with him and his daughters dead and his kingdom in shambles.

Shakespeare has Lear say that he is eighty years old, so the onset of senility is never far from the surface of this story of an old man driven to madness by his destruction of his own family. In Angus Jackson’s solid if unexciting staging, Frank Langella essays the title role, and if much of the time he seems too lucid, too in control to lose his grip on sanity as he nears death, he speaks the poetry clearly and with purpose. There are small touches—like the seemingly inadvertent stumble at the beginning that shows his dottering age—that are an actor’s knowing grace notes.

But there’s no sense of overarching tragedy because Langella is never moving, even while pityingly hugging the blinded Gloucester or reciting those five heartrending “nevers” over the body of his dead Cordelia (a wooden, charmless Isabella Laughland). Before that, when Langella literally drags the actress’s limp body to center stage for the death scene, it’s a moment of supreme absurdity: if Langella can’t carry her at his age, that’s fine, but treating the poor girl like a sack of potatoes mutes the poignancy of Lear’s final moments.

Supporting cast standouts are Catherine McCormack’s intelligent, elegant Goneril; Harry Melling’s touching, sweet-natured Fool; and Denis Conway’s sympathetic Gloucester. Langella also gets to howl during a storm scene while being drenched in an impressive rain shower; it’s the show’s most striking visual effect that’s complemented by Oliver Boustead’s ingenious lighting. But this is another stage Lear that, like its faltering monarch, has only scattered moments of lucidity as it approaches its darker purpose.

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