Brownstein: Segal Centre celebrates 'power of coming together' in troubled times

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical brings some much-needed joy to a community on edge.

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In the grandest of showbiz traditions, the show went on — and will continue to go on at the Segal Centre.  

The show is Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and its first preview performance on Sunday — marking the start of the Segal Centre’s theatre season — not only went off without a hitch, but blew the packed house away. A co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Beautiful, focusing on the rise of one of the greatest pop singers/composers of all, has its official launch Thursday. 

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But there was much trepidation leading up to the first preview. Amid security concerns related to the Israel-Hamas war, the venue, located in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish community, put out this missive on Friday: “While there is no credible threat, out of an abundance of caution, there will be an increased security presence surrounding the Segal Centre for these performances.”

“This is an unprecedented response due to an unprecedented fear in the community,” says Lisa Rubin, Segal Centre executive and artistic director. “We haven’t had this level of fear in a very long time and people are on edge. But the message we’re getting from the police and our security team is we need to go on living our lives. There are no credible threats, but psychologically there is a heightened sense for the community, and so if having an extra bit of security will make people feel better, we will do that.  

“Coming here and celebrating the power of coming together is very important. 

“We had a full house for that first performance, so it’s very telling to me that people are coming and are not afraid.”  

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The Segal Centre artistic director Lisa Rubin in her office in Montreal on Monday October 16, 2023.
“The world could use a lot more of Carole King lyrics right now. They speak to you no matter what you are going through,” says Segal Centre artistic director Lisa Rubin, seen in her office in Montreal on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Of note, Beautiful has been breaking Segal Centre records for pre-sold tickets. In fact, the theatre has been so buoyed by audience response that on Monday it announced the show’s run has been extended a week, until Nov. 12. 

“I wish we could go on longer, but we have another show, Boy Falls From the Sky, starting Nov. 19, and Beautiful goes to Winnipeg’s Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in January,” Rubin says. 

It’s tough enough for actors to perform at the best of times, particularly with intricate singing and dancing components in this show’s mix, so one might assume war could bring another level of anxiety to the team. 

The 19-member cast of Beautiful is a mix of many different cultural backgrounds and comes from all corners of Canada.  

“They’re the perfect example of people from all communities coming together, but what’s really relevant is seeing this group really supporting one another as an ensemble,” Rubin says. “But what they can’t ignore is there’s a war going on. Same with the audience, which comes from all backgrounds and all generations. The world could use a lot more of Carole King lyrics right now. They speak to you no matter what you are going through.” 

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Tess Berger, who plays Carole King, and the rest of the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical are seen in rehearsal at the Segal Centre in Montreal on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023.
The 19-member cast of Beautiful is a mix of many different cultural backgrounds and comes from all corners of Canada, writes columnist Bill Brownstein. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

True enough. There weren’t many dry eyes in the house when Tess Benger, who lights up the stage in the lead role, evocatively rendered such King classics as You’ve Got a Friend and Beautiful. 

In addition to telling King’s story, Beautiful provides a fascinating history lesson on the early stages of the American pop-music scene in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. King and her one-time husband Gerry Goffin (played by Darren Martens) began their careers penning tunes for the likes of the Shirelles, Bobby Vee, the Drifters and Little Eva. They were fast friends with another pair of songwriters, Cynthia Weil (Laura Olafson) and Barry Mann (Mike Melino), who composed tunes recorded by the Righteous Brothers and the Animals. 

After splitting from Goffin, King reluctantly came into the spotlight as a singer with her chart-busting album Tapestry in 1971 and never looked back.  

But as invested as cast members have been in their parts, they have not been immune to the suffering going on in Israel and Gaza. 

“I was kind of in a bubble at first, not knowing what was happening,” says Winnipeg native Martens, prior to a rehearsal at the theatre. “Then it hit hard. One of the cast members got us all together for a moment of silence.

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“This has affected me and the others in a profound way. We’re all very aware and hurt, but we do feel safe. If anything, it has added to our reason for doing this musical. It’s important to bring some joy to audiences at a time when so many are hurting.” 

The Segal Centre presents Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Director Kelly Thornton, Tess Benger (Carole King), Cory Wojcik (Donny Kirshner), Mike Melino (Barry Mann) and Laura Olafson (Cynthia Weil), left to right, on stage during rehearsal at the centre in Montreal on Monday October 16, 2023.
Director Kelly Thornton, from left, and actors Tess Benger, Cory Wojcik, Mike Melino and Laura Olafson rehearse Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Segal Centre. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

Jonathan Patterson recalls a tragedy that occurred during his last acting gig at the Segal Centre, doing The Producers in 2016, when a gunman murdered 49 people at an LGBTQ2+ nightclub in Orlando, Fla. 

“The weight of being back at the Segal in the wake of another major tragedy is incredibly emotional and difficult,” says the Montrealer, who does a dynamite belting of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ as one of the Righteous Brothers and also plays record-mogul producer Lou Adler. “But art is part of the healing process and what can bring people together, and it’s doing that here.” 

“In the midst of this tragedy, it’s a privilege to be able to lift a bit of the weight everyone is feeling,” notes Torontonian Benger. “That’s our responsibility. People always ask me what’s my favourite song in the show, and I go back to Beautiful: ‘You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile in your face and show the world all the love in your heart.’ I really wish people took those lyrics to heart.” 

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Perhaps Kelly Thornton, the show’s director and the artistic director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, sums it up best: 

“The entire cast has been quietly suffering, heartbroken by events,” Thornton says. “But Beautiful has been medicine for us all during very troubled times.” 

AT A GLANCE

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through until Nov. 12 at the Segal Centre, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd. Reservations: segalcentre.org or 514-739-7944. 

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