Ali Harper’s Circa Theatre tribute to the extraordinary Carole King

Carole King  – A Natural Woman

Ali Harper (vocals)
With Nick Granville (guitar), Scott Maynard (bass), Francis Meria (piano)
and Francis Leota (guest singer).

Producer(s) – Ali Harper, Iain Cave (Ali-Cat Productions)
Music arrangements – Tom Rainey
Lighting, sound design and operator – Rich Tucker
Costume design – Roz Wilmott-Dalton, Ali Harper

Circa Theatre, I Taranaki St., Wellington

Saturday 22nd January

If you’re like me, you’ll still have a headful of songs playing away in your cerebral jukebox which instantly bring back nostalgic memories of different eras, but in many cases have neglected the “fine detail” of actually knowing who WROTE some of these songs…….well, if that’s so, then singer Ali Harper’s latest presentation “A Natural Woman” at Circa Theatre (which opened on Saturday night) is a “must see” for you!

The music and its presentation here felt for me like a series of oceanic currents which caught me up and swept me along through music’s wider vistas, leaving me at the end somewhat dumbfounded at both the force and unexpected variety of songwriter Carole King’s creative genius. Of course I knew her name (automatically bracketing her with Jerry Goffin, her husband and writer of her song’s lyrics for almost twenty years of her career, up to 1968), and was certainly aware of her most famous recording, the album “Tapestry”, which appeared in 1971 (but which I never bought or got to know, to my great regret, being too enamoured of her friend Joni Mitchell’s music at the time). But what I didn’t grasp was the extent to which King wrote songs that other people made famous – or made other people famous!

I could go through Ali Harper’s show and pinpoint the epiphanous (both retrospective and “then-and-now”) moments, but thought I would leave such delights of belated recognition for those, like myself, who relish such things in situ apart from the ones I simply HAVE to mention! Of course, to Carole King’s fans, aware of her far-reaching and resonating influence, each song Harper presented here was a gem, to be re-exhibited and relished all over again, including several I didn’t really know, and therefore couldn’t, in perhaps the show’s most touching moment, respond to the singer’s ready invitation to “join in” with the lyrics of “You’ve got a friend”, which was also a hit for King’s colleague James Taylor in 1971. Now, had I bought that “Tapestry” LP back in the 1970s (along with those Joni Mitchell albums!) I would have been able to sing along with the rest!

Harper opened her show in atmospheric style, with a sultry rendition of the opening words of one of King’s most iconic songs “I feel the earth move” (the song that opened her “Tapestry” LP), then gradually and excitingly building up the music’s trajectories with the help of her accompanying musicians into that captivating state of physicality that’s part of her work’s whole-heartedness. Harper’s generous acknowledgements of the contributions made by pianist Francis Mena, guitarist Nick Granville and bassist Scott Maynard throughout the evening drew attention to the occasion’s celebration of musicianship per se in a way one couldn’t help feeling King herself would have very much endorsed and enjoyed.

This show largely followed the format and style of a previous Ali Harper “special” featuring the life and work of songwriter Burt Bacharach, though a significant difference was that the musical accompaniments here were generated “live”, with, midway through the show’s first half, another singer added to the vocal mix, the sweet-voiced Francis Leota, duetting with Harper in some of the numbers, and adding to the vocal support provided by the band throughout. As with Bacharach, Harper could use her subject’s songwriting output as material illustrating the latter’s lifestory; though King’s activities (however belated) as a performer of her own songs enlarged in scope the means by which her “presence” was evoked. Ali herself took over the piano for the accompaniment of one of King’s songs, “Lay Down My Life”, remarking wryly at the number’s end that it was the first occasion on which she had accompanied a song on the piano on a stage, and that she had a further 25 shows to get her fingers properly into shape before the season’s end!

Apart from the pleasures of composer-discovery in the case of a number of well-known songs, I was as intrigued by hearing a number of King’s compositions I didn’t know at all and really liked – I’ve already mentioned the heartfelt strains of “You’ve got a Friend” – and responded with, firstly, as much relish to the Joni-Mitchell-like “At this time in my life” as to the later and more confident “Natural Woman”, and then to the deeply-touching “Child of Mine”, a beautiful meditation on the significance of parenthood – all performed by Harper (the latter a vocal collaboration with Francis Leota) with a certain frisson resonating further as Harper spoke of her own admiration for King and her singular qualities of courage and determination in the face of life’s difficulties.

The show’s title “A Natural Woman” summed up this sympathetic and squarely-faced portrayal of King throughout her various career, taking in her stride significant personal highlights and setbacks, and bringing out  the heartfelt, almost confessional nature of her songwriting, and subsequently her performances. The breakup of her first marriage to Jerry Goffin was a turning-point for King, leading her reluctantly to focus on building a parallel career as a performer, to which end the release of “Tapestry” in 1971 succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, topping the US sales charts for a record-breaking fifteen weeks. In it she repossessed some of her own songs such as “It’s Too Late” and “Will you love me Tomorrow”.  And, three subsequent marriages produced altogether four children for King, here giving the song “Child of Mine” an extra fillip of emotion in its significance.

Harper’s was, for me, more of a retrospective tribute to Carole King than a re-evocation of her as an on-stage personality – I was a little surprised at this, considering the effect of her incredibly moving recreation of another icon, Doris Day, in an earlier show, in which we seemed to be taken right into Day’s world with Harper herself on that occasion seemingly infused with her subject’s charismatic persona. Here, conversely, she seemed to take pains to emphasise parallel worlds of then and now, telling us, for example, that King’s record-breaking release “Tapestry” appeared the year that she, Harper, was born. True, the dresses Harper wore (a different one for each half) seemed to me most apposite, straight from the ‘70s, and whose effect augmented those moments when in direct vocal flight the singer seemed suitably (and satisfyingly) possessed with her subject’s singular focus, one triumphantly embodied by the title given to the evening’s presentation.

Sadly, the advent of the Omicron virus would seem to already indicate a marked effect upon A Natural Woman’s season, with future shows (at time of writing) continuing to require vaccine passes and face masks, but also limiting audience numbers per performance, due to social distancing. The performances are scheduled to run until February 22nd, so people who intend to go (or have already booked) should contact Circa for updates and clarification without delay.

To Ali Harper and her colleagues, on- and off-stage, all the best for the show’s continuance under these trying circumstances! To my mind, both the material and the performances fully deserve whatever interest and attention is still possible!

 

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