Blanket Indictment

It was inevitable that the trend in tribute albums honoring contemporary singer/songwriters--which kicked into high gear more than a decade ago with Famous Blue Raincoat, Jennifer Warnes' remarkable Leonard Cohen homage--would begin to spill over into the musical theater arena. A new generation of stage directors seems to want to commemorate pop composers just as Cole Porter and the Gershwins have been celebrated: in revues that reprise their musical milestones. But those fellows wrote primarily for the stage, so their tunes fit more readily into a stage format than, say, the works of Paul Simon or Billy Joel might.

Carole King, one of our most prolific and successful contemporary composers, is the first victim of this pop-tunesmith-as-theater-artist concept. Tapestry: The Music of Carole King, based on King's groundbreaking 1971 album of the same name, was originally a musical revue that bombed off-Broadway a few years ago. Its Phoenix production sports a new book, by local Theater League founder Mark Edelman, which attempts to tell a story of three college gal pals who form a vocal trio in the early 1970s.

Amanda (Katie McFadzen) is a scholarship princess obsessed with cute boys; Beth (Gwen Loeb) is an earthy women's studies student; and Marva (Kristen Drathman) dreams of a successful singing career. After graduation, each of these women heads off into the world and ends up exactly where we expect them to; along the way, they trounce some of the most delightful American pop music of our time.

Before seeing this production, I wouldn't have guessed it was possible to destroy a Carole King song. But these arrangements--listlessly played by an uninspired and percussion-heavy band--are lifeless. The singing isn't bad. Individually and in three-part harmony, the cast displays some technical prowess, though nearly every song is sunk by a creaky attempt to graft it onto the show's flabby story.

Most of the songs are matched to hyper-naive narratives, like "So Far Away," which tries to be a story-song about a woman whose husband is away on business, and "You've Got a Friend," which is the soundtrack for the women's reunion at the final curtain. The transitions from monologue to song are always jarring and occasionally nonsensical. Close to curtain, one of the women blurts out the shocking news that she's had an abortion, then breaks into a weepy rendition of "Up on the Roof."

The story strains to make some kind of point about friendship and political unrest, but delivers little more than a series of monologues (fired directly into the audience) about the predictably dreary lives of these three women. Edelman attempts to introduce some suspense into the proceedings with a dumb subplot about hostages and an abortion clinic; all he ends up delivering is a story about some sad women who spend their lives trying to recapture the fun they had in college.

McFadzen, a performer I usually enjoy very much, is miscast as a prissy politician's wife. Amanda is supposed to be a priggish Pat Nixon clone, stifled by her offstage, office-seeking husband. But McFadzen mugs her way through the role, wearing the same maniacal smile throughout. As a result, Amanda comes off like a kooky Society Mom, dragged unwillingly into a ladies auxiliary talent show.

Drathman, whose big, rangy voice is featured in several numbers, attempts to make something of a nonsense role. We're asked to believe that Marva is obsessed with succeeding as a popular singer, yet she's willing to pass up a duet with Sinatra at the White House and a trip to the Grammys to hang out with her girlfriends. Encumbered by the pile of ghastly wigs and dresses she's made to model, Drathman mostly fails.

Loeb turns in the best performance as the mouthy earth mother, and is handed the best songs of the lot.

Edelman contends, in his program notes, that King's music belongs in the legitimate theater. He couldn't be more wrong. The beauty of these pop gems is their simplicity, and--particularly in the case of those songs culled from the show's namesake album--their casual treatment by King in the original recordings. These aren't songs intended for big, theatrical voices and, translated into perfectly enunciated, brightly polished show tunes, they end up sounding like commercial jingles. Imagine Jessye Norman singing a Pepsodent ad.

At the performance I attended, the sleepy matinee audience roused itself only once, to guffaw loudly at the worst of Drathman's terrible get-ups, hung on her by an uncredited costumer who must have spent weeks scouring thrift shops for the ugliest frocks in town.

I'm glad that Tapestry is a stink bomb that can't help but fail. If it were to succeed, we'd soon be awash in a sea of book musicals based on marvelous albums by female vocalists. If the trend really took off, local companies would eventually end up hawking low-rent tuners by forgotten folk singers like Refugee: The Songs of Rachel Faro and Comfortable Shoes: Music of Janis Ian.

In the meantime, there's Tapestry, an uninteresting show that attempts to transform Carole King into a theater maven and ends up only inviting a lot of unanswered questions. The first one that came to my mind as I exited the playhouse was, "I passed up a brunch invitation for this?"

Theater League's production of Tapestry: The Music of Carole King continues through Sunday, August 1, at the Viad Playhouse on the Park, 1850 North Central.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela