Spotlight on Carole King: A Half Century of Great Music Performed Superbly
– by Lee Greene
Camelot Theatre is currently presenting a most enjoyable Spotlight presentation, Spotlight on Carole King, which I had the opportunity to enjoy on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015. The Spotlight shows typically focus on the life, career, and body of work of a show biz notable, often a singer or songwriter, as was the case for this production. Carole King was the most successful songwriter of the latter half of the 20th Century, writing or co-writing 118 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1955 and 1999. [Wikipedia, Carole King, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carole_King] Although she avoided performing herself until the 1970s, preferring to write for other artists, once she began to sing her own songs, she made 25 solo albums, including three number one albums (Tapestry, Music, and Wrap Around Joy) and seven top 10 albums. [Wikipedia, Carole King Discography, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carole_King_discography] Her breakthrough hit album, Tapestry in 1971 set a record by holding the top spot on the U.S. album charts for 15 weeks, and remained on the charts for more than 6 years. [Wikipedia, Carole King, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carole_King] She has won 4 Grammy Awards, has been inducted into both the Songwriters and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, and was the first woman to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, in 2013.
Quoting Spotlight Director Presila Quinby from the Program Notes for Spotlight on Carole King: “I defy anyone over the age of 40 to tell me they’ve never heard a Carole King song! Her songwriting career spanned not only decades, but genres, too.” Her Wikipedia entry lists pop, soft rock, folk rock, and blue eyed soul [Id.] and I really don’t think that’s an exhaustive list; she’s written hits for the Everly Brothers, Little Eva, Bobby Vee, even the Beatles, and various other performers which arguably extend into other genres.
By any measure, Carole King’s music is extensive and wonderful. Her life has been no less interesting, filled with lots of ups and downs, a veritable roller coaster of high points and lows, and interesting diversions and sidetracks, from domestic life as a young wife and mother in New Jersey to the wild Bohemian life in an artist’s colony in Laurel Canyon, California, to the rugged, individualist existence on an isolated ranch in Idaho. Along the way she went through four marriages from start to finish, and gave birth to and nurtured to adulthood four children. All of this is well presented in the Camelot Spotlight production, so I won’t go into any more detail here. Go see the show and enjoy the ride, as they progress through the story of Carole King’s life replete with performances of a large compliment of the songs she composed along the way. All in all, the show presents 19 of Carole King’s individual songs, plus 3 medley numbers comprising another 6 songs; 25 songs in all.
Spotlight on Carole King brings together two of the most talented women to grace the stages in Southern Oregon, director Presila Quinby and singer, actress and script writer Gayle Wilson. It is an auspicious pairing – between the excellent script for the show written by Ms. Wilson and the spot-on direction and guidance by Ms. Quinby, together they’ve produced a smooth, seamless, coherent, comprehensive, and thoroughly enjoyable tour through the life and music of Carole King. The songs are primarily performed by Ms. Wilson, who has the pipes, styling and talent to render quite good cover versions of Carole King’s songs. Backup singing is provided by Karen Cooke, who has frequently performed locally as a soloist for the Kirby Shaw led Jefferson State Choral Coalition and by frequent Camelot Theatre musical performer, Rose Passione. Both of them are superior singers, who know their way around a stage, and were well up to the task of contributing the vocals needed to produce terrific versions of the Carole King songs. The vocalists were backed by an incomparably good five piece band: Music Director and Arranger Brad Olstad on piano and keyboard, Steve Fain on electric and string bass, Dave Bernard on electric and acoustic guitar, Steve Sutfin on percussion, and the multi-talented Michael Vannice on flute, alto flute, alto sax, tenor sax and baritone sax – almost a one man band all on his own.
The show was divided into two acts. The first act began and ended with rousing performances of Carole King pop hits from her record setting album, Tapestry. The show opened with the upbeat piano styled number, I Feel the Earth Move. Right from the beginning, it was clear that this was going to be an exceptional show; the singing was wonderful, Ms. Wilson was in fine form, the backup vocals were near perfect, and the five piece band was outstanding. The performances were very consistently superior throughout the 8 individual songs and 3 medleys performed during the first act. My copious notes are filled with bravados for the musicians: nice sax and good percussion on Home Again, great flute on the medley Go Away Little Girl/Take Good Care of My Baby, great sax and drums on the medley The Loco-motion/Chains, nice flute on It Might as Well Rain Until September, great sax again on Sweet Seasons. The first act closed with the Tapestry hit song that was on the other side of the hit single, I Feel the Earth Move, It’s Too Late. Ms. Wilson accompanied herself on the piano for that number, and my notes describe her performance as “just great!” And one more scribble; “great sax AGAIN!”
After an intermission the show resumed with a second act, during which another 11 songs were presented, beginning with Ms. Wilson at the piano again accompanying herself while singing Way Over Yonder, “wonderfully done, with fine backup vocals and a terrific sax solo.” That was followed by the song Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (“nice flute passages”) and then, one of the surprise highlights of the show, the song You’ve Got A Friend.
That requires a short aside. A real, and very pleasant surprise in this show was the contribution of singer, guitarist Dave Bernard, in his first appearance on the Camelot Theatre stage. The guitar work, excellent, was not much of a surprise, as he plays and displays his prowess on the instrument in two local rock bands, The East Main Band and Lincoln Project. But his vocals were an unexpected highpoint of the show. A substantial portion of the Carole King catalog, almost everything written before 1970, was written for other artists, and that doesn’t mean female artists; she wrote hits for many male performers as well. And later in her career, her muse, largely responsible for her entry at last into solo performing, and frequent collaborator, was James Taylor. Of course, any accurate portrayal of Carole King’s career and music has to include pieces which were hits for some of the male vocalists, and James Taylor is a vital part of the story and the music. The Carole King song, You’ve Got a Friend, has become an iconic piece which Taylor is forever indelibly identified with, and probably is asked to sing every day of his life. Someone had to take the Camelot stage and sing the male vocals on those Carole King songs. The assignment was given to Mr. Bernard and he absolutely knocked the ball out of the ballpark. He was repeatedly outstanding and memorable when stepping to the mic to sing the male contributions to King’s songs, beginning with the Bobby Vee hit Go Away Little Girl performed early in the Spotlight’s first act.
As I noted, one of the absolute highlights of the show, early in the second act, occurred when Mr. Bernard delivered an exquisite, nuanced, rendition of You’ve Got a Friend. After his performance in this show, I dare say Mr. Bernard probably has lots of friends, eager to enlist his talents in the future. Of course, Mr. Bernard did not deliver the extraordinary rendition of You’ve Got a Friend all by his lonesome. He had lots of notable help. My notes mention terrific congas by Mr. Sutfin, excellent string bass by Mr. Fain, excellent piano work by Mr. Olstad, no surprise, lovely sax contribution by Mr. Vannice, and of course, fine background vocals by the three women.
After Mr. Bernard’s star turn, the spotlight returned to Ms. Wilson, who again took to the piano to accompany herself on a polished performance of So Far Away, which included another notable Vannice flute solo. That was followed by two pieces featuring great piano work by Mr. Olstead: a fine performance by Ms. Wilson of You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman and then Been To Canaan, also including great conga work again by Mr. Sutfin and more terrific flute contributions by Mr. Vannice. Then it was Mr. Bernard’s turn to sing the lead again, on the Freddie Scott song, Hey Girl. It was another wonderful rendition, but again Mr. Bernard had lots of help. The three women sang very strong backup vocals, Mr. Fain shined on the string bass, and Mr. Olstad and Mr. Vannice contributed an excellent keyboard-sax sequence. That was followed by a performance of the title song from the hit album Tapestry, which began and ended with superb flute solo passages, and featured terrific string bass parts to go along with Ms. Wilson’s fine singing. The next number, Up On the Roof featured a duet by Ms. Wilson and Mr. Bernard, who each also accompanied, she on piano and he on acoustic guitar. And Mr. Vannice had the opportunity to really show off his versatility on that number, providing both a great sax contribution AND a wonderful flute passage during that one song. With the show building to a climax, my notes indicate that the next song, the penultimate on the program, was another highlight of the program, an upbeat rendition of the hit song, Jazzman from the Carole King hit album, Wrap Around Joy. The original recording was notable for its saxophone solos, and Mr. Vannice didn’t disappoint. Not surprisingly, the piece is very jazzy (I told you Carole King’s catalog extended into other genres!) The Camelot Spotlight performance produced a very enjoyable jazzy sound, adding to Ms. Wilson’s vocals and Mr. Vannice’s saxophones, great electric bass rifts by Mr. Fain, an absolutely terrific drum rift by Mr. Sutfin, and some fine jazz piano work by Mr. Olstad. The finale turned out to be a sing along, with the audience invited to join Ms. Wilson and the rest of the ensemble singing the 1964 Herman’s Hermits hit, I’m into Something Good, with the lyrics projected for the audience on the screen at the back of the stage.
I’ve gone on at length about the music, and intentionally ignored the story being unfolded as the music was being performed throughout the show. Ms. King’s life is told and depicted extremely well and in considerable detail, which you can see and hear for yourself when you attend the show. I do have to mention that Camelot Theatre did all of the things which it does best, in presenting the story – the stagecraft was excellent. Accompanying all the musical performances, and before and after, very effective use is made of projections illustrating Carole King’s life, from a young, immature looking shy teenager, through her tumultuous marriages, her wild times in Laurel Canyon, the isolation in Idaho, right up to her fully grown, independent and talented-in-their-own-right children. Everything is well illustrated, and aptly synched to the well written script telling Ms. King’s life story, read in turns by the three female vocalists.
I’ll go one better than Ms. Quinby’s challenge. I can’t believe there is anyone over 40 who doesn’t LIKE at least one Carole King song. There have been so many, spanning so many genres, that the only way I can imagine that possibility is if one happens to be a person who just plains dislikes music, period, if there is such a thing. Carole King’s music is just fantastic; you can’t have 118 pop hits without making good music. And Camelot has done a magnificent job of presenting a good representative sample of that wonderful music with great singing and the best band around. Do yourself a big favor and go catch a performance of this enjoyable show while you can. You’ll come out afterwards feeling upbeat and exhilarated, and humming one hit tune or another; whichever happened to tickle your fancy. Performances of Spotlight on Carole King continue at Camelot Theatre, 101 Talent Avenue, Talent through November 22, Thursday thru Saturday 8:00 pm, Sunday Matinees 2:00 pm. For tickets: order online at http://bit.ly/1EO71aR, or call the box office at 541-535-5250, or in person at 101 Talent Avenue, Talent, Oregon.
Photos (except caricatures) by George Rubaloff