Art Notes: Local productions of a national scale

Kennedy Caughell, who stars as Carole King in

Kennedy Caughell, who stars as Carole King in "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” at the New London Barn Playhouse in New London, N.H., on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The musical opened on July 19 and runs through August 6. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / report for america — Alex Driehaus

Courtesy New London Barn Playhouse
Kennedy Caughell, center, appears in a scene from New London Barn Playhouse's production of

Courtesy New London Barn Playhouse Kennedy Caughell, center, appears in a scene from New London Barn Playhouse's production of "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical." Courtesy New London Barn Playhouse

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-26-2023 4:56 PM

Floating out there on the internet is a Broadway World interview with Kennedy Caughell.

Conducted just before the national tour of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” began a four-day run in Thousand Oaks, Calif., the interview recounts how much Caughell had researched King to prepare to portray the legendary singer-songwriter and how she’d settled into the role.

“When you’re in the show full time, you can really relax and breathe into it and make your own choices a lot more than when you’re an understudy,” Caughell said at the time. “So it really feels like it’s my own now.”

The interview was dated Feb. 12, 2020. A month or so later, the coronavirus pandemic shut theaters down, including the national tour of “Beautiful.”

But Caughell’s long relationship with this show wasn’t over, and she is back to reprise her role at New London Barn Playhouse in a production that continues through Aug. 6.

The Barn’s production, and this weekend’s production of “NOISE,” a Hopkins Center presentation at Northern Stage, serve as reminders that the Upper Valley is home to theater of national scope.

Caughell first performed in New London in 2011, when she was an acting intern, or Barnie, for the summer.

She auditioned for the lead role in “Beautiful” when the play was new; it first appeared on Broadway in 2013. Later on, she served as an understudy and performed the role on Broadway before the national tour.

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I grew up with a copy of King’s “Tapestry” album in the house, and songs she wrote, both for other singers and those she recorded herself, were part of the sonic background for Generation X. I wondered how Caughell would connect with those songs, but she might be better equipped to look at King, her music and her era from arm’s length, without sentimentality.

Caughell read “A Natural Woman,” King’s 2012 memoir. “It was so helpful to hear about her life from her perspective,” she said.

King viewed herself not as a woman in a man’s world but as a writer who was good at what she did, Caughell said.

It helps that, like King, Caughell writes her own music and plays the piano. She and her husband also live in Pleasant Valley, N.J., about five minutes from where King lived with her husband and songwriting partner, Gerry Goffin.

The show is an interesting test of audience response as they learn just how many amazing songs King wrote, Caughell said.

“Some Kind of Wonderful,” a huge hit for The Drifters, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” recorded by The Shirelles, and “A Natural Woman,” most famously recorded by Aretha Franklin, all tend to stun listeners.

Caughell met King during the Broadway run, when she was still an understudy. She told King how much her music had meant to her father, who wrapped up his copy of “Tapestry” for Caughell when she played King on Broadway. Caughell was apologetic, telling King she must have heard such a story many times before.

“Then she stopped me,” Caughell said. ” ‘But never from you,’ ” King told her.

“It felt like I was just talking to a down-to-earth Carole, and not Carole King, the legend,” she said.

There was a lesson in there for her and other performers: to stay grounded and true to who you are, no mean feat when your job is pretending to be someone else.

King and “Tapestry” featured in “1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything,” in an episode of the AppleTV+ documentary series that also considers the influence of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” which came out the same year and covered some of the same ground: a young woman’s life after breakup.

I’ve been watching the series, which strikes me as interesting but conjectural, but I haven’t gotten to that episode. What it makes clear, though, is that a great many musicians were producing personal work of great power and influence. Did it “change everything,” as the title claims? I doubt it, but as a reflection of the times, it was indispensable.

“NOISE,” a musical produced by the Hopkins Center for the Arts, in conjunction with Northern Stage, seeks the same sort of influence, but deliberately, and from the get-go.

“It’s just a joyful celebration of the possibilities of music,” Mary Lou Aleskie, director of the Hopkins Center, said this week.

The play has been in development for several years and has been performed in a handful of places during its development. The Hop is taking the final step to put this experimental show on its feet and hopefully see it walk out into the wider theater world.

The website of Dartmouth theater professor Cesar Alvarez, who wrote the show’s book, music and lyrics, calls it “a performative thought experiment which commandeers the form of the musical in order to imagine the sound of a more just world.”

The premise is that the audience enters a space full of musicians who feel their work can change the world and that they should get going. In the second half, they get to work, with the audience’s help.

Sounds like heady stuff, but also adventuresome and open-hearted, two of the best qualities in music-making, in my view.

Producing a show like “NOISE,” which is directed by the celebrated, multiple-Obie-winning collaborationist Sarah Benson, is a healthy sign for theater in the Upper Valley.

“We want the world to know, and the country to know, that we have what it takes to make original work,” Aleskie said, noting that the Hop has mainly been a presenter and is making the turn to creating more of what it presents.

That’s happening in New London, too, where acting interns like Caughell go on to bigger things and bring those bigger shows back to the Barn Playhouse.

“It’s a proud moment to be able to open our arms and welcome Kennedy back and have her share her talents with the Barn’s audience,” Barn Playhouse Executive Artistic Director Keith Coughlin said.

Performances of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” run through Aug. 6. For tickets and more information, go to nlbarn.org or call 603-526-6710.

Performances of “NOISE” are planned for Thursday through Sunday at Northern Stage in White River Junction. For tickets and more information, go to hop.dartmouth.edu or call 603-646-2422.

Vermont on film

While Vermont has a bustling theater scene, its film infrastructure is meager. That makes it all the more surprising when a feature-length film reaches audiences. It has to be a labor of love, which is the best kind of movie.

“The Farm Boy,” Vermont filmmaker George Woodard’s recent film, based lightly on his parents and set in 1944, screens at 2 Sunday afternoon in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. It also screens at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 4 in Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Chase Center. Tickets for both screenings are $10 at the door.

The rural hipster

I tend to think of brunch as an urban thing, a hangout with friends over food, drinks and the Sunday New York Times spread over a coffee table. Those were the days.

But as with all things urban, brunch has come to the country. So it is that the Chandler Center for the Arts is hosting a handful of Bluegrass Brunches this summer, in Braintree, Vt.

The most immediate is this Sunday, and features Patti Casey and Colin McCaffrey at noon, followed by Doug Perkins, Patrick Ross and Jim Whitney.

Joining the Chandler in hosting the brunches are Ridgeline Outdoor Collective, which offers a mountain bike ride before the brunch at 10 a.m., and the Braintree Historical Society. A quarter of the proceeds from the event will support flood relief in Montpelier and the work of Montpelier Alive.

Admission is by donation, and the event takes place at the Braintree Hill Meetinghouse at 2756 Braintree Hill Road.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.