In style and intent, the Carole King musical Beautiful, returning to San Francisco after a successful Broadway run, and Mediumface’s production of Showgirls! The Musical, a trashy parody of the trashy 1980s cult classic, Showgirls, live in different lands. And yet they share a belief in performance -- that the will to sing in the face of our foolishness, no matter how stinging our failures, is the surest path to joy and the only way to salvation.
Carol King's career: dramatic, or just beautiful?
In a sly bit of meta-theatrics, Beautiful begins with King introducing herself at a 1971 Carnegie Hall concert fresh off the success of her Grammy-winning, chart topping solo album, Tapestry. In true biopic fashion, Douglas McGrath’s book will bring us back around to that triumphant moment.
The first act follows the young King, full of uncertain ambition, selling her first song to Don Kirshner; meeting her soon-to-be husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin; their initial success; an unplanned pregnancy; marriage; his cheating; and the beginning of their long slide towards divorce. It’s a standard show biz narrative, and yet somehow, at moments, Beautiful transcends the genre in rather exciting ways.
And it’s all in the music and how McGrath gives us access to the art of songwriting and singing through his storytelling. Often a number will begin with King at the piano, sketching out a tune, and you can hear her gifts -- the fine sense of timing and the shifty melodies that somehow effortlessly hold together. Then Goffin enters with a phrase or verse and they’ll sing together and you can hear the words float into place.
So you aren’t just listening for the hit, as happens in most jukebox musicals, but also feeling your way through the music with King and Goffin. It’s a charming and enticing effect, and when it ends with slick recreations of the acts they wrote for -- The Drifters, The Shirelles, Little Eva (who was their baby sitter) -- the music and the musical soar.
We feel the twin poles of what it takes to create a hit song -- the pedestrian nature of its birth and its electric triumph in performance. And for a moment you think that Beautiful might find a daring bridge between the two, that anything could happen in the vortex of all these dissimilar and explosive talents working together. But McGrath hints at rather than plunges into the fury that lies beneath these pop hits.
Nothing is made of King and Goffin’s ability to write for and sell the first wave of African-American pop acts. Nor the subversive charm the duo brought to the white, manufactured boy band, The Monkees. What’s disappointing is how much of this material is right in front of McGrath, from Goffin’s affair with an African-American singer (called Janelle Woods in the show, but possibly one of the Chiffons) to King and Goffin’s retreat to the suburbs.
What should be rough and painful is glossed over. By the time King is singing her own songs -- working on Tapestry in the studio with Lou Alder and performing in front of huge crowds -- the drama feels spent and preordained, the singing straining for effect. It should have been otherwise.
Showgirls! The Musical resolves Paul Verhoven's schlocky movie in musical form
Paul Verhoven’s Showgirls, a strip show take on All About Eve, is one of the greatest so-bad-it's-good movies of all time. It's a deliberate piece of sleaze so over-the-top that it somehow achieves moments of subtlety, pain, and insight. One might argue that Verhoven anticipated the derision and parodies that would inevitably follow, and that Bob and Tobly McSmith’s musical theater send-up is exactly what he imagined would happen. The excesses of Showgirls could only be resolved in a musical.
So in many ways the script -- sometimes witty, always raunchy, and ridiculously provisional to the proceedings -- is an afterthought. It could have been better or worse, and it still would have had nothing to do with what’s disturbing and fascinating about the production. Showgirls! The Musical is all about the performers and how far they’re willing to embrace trash, just as Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon did in the original. The answer at the Victoria Theatre is: pretty far.
April Kidwell, as Nomi, the drifter-prostitute dreaming of Las Vegas showgirl stardom, gives the most committed and startling comic performance I've seen so far this year. Like the best of Will Ferrell’s early film work, Kidwell uses her naked body to shock us into recognizing our common humanity. The character might come off as wooden, shallow, and foolish, but the failures of Nomi's body to obey her ambitions tell a more complex and mournful tale.
Watch Nomi attempt to master a stripper’s pole, have sex in a pool, or perform a topless soft shoe shuffle in the middle of a striptease. Suddenly, under Kidwell’s striking comic bumbling, you see how human a fool can be. And so when Nomi sings, no matter how risible the material -- “Dancing Ain’t Fucking,” “Dead Hooker,” “We’re Fucking Underwater” to name just a few of the musical's imaginatively-titled numbers -- we listen with care and understanding. How wonderful that Nomi should find the strength, during and after every degradation, to burst into song.
Showgirls! The Musical is not great art and might even be bad art, but somehow it does what great art so beautifully accomplishes -- it forces you to care for someone you'd otherwise laugh at.
Beautiful plays through Sunday, Sep. 18 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information please click here.
Showgirls! The Musical plays through Saturday, Aug. 27 at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information please click here.