Chilina Kennedy feels Carole King’s love

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

My April 16 Enchanté column

“I have often asked myself
The reason for the sadness in a world
Where tears are just a lullaby
If there’s any answer, maybe
Love can end the madness
Maybe not, oh, but we can only try” (from Beautiful, by Carole King)

Canadian actor Chilina Kennedy weaves her unique skills into her role as Carole King in the Broadway show Beautiful.

Not only did she make the grade in her Broadway audition, but Carole King herself had to sign off, approving Kennedy for the role. The praise can’t get any higher than that.

Carole King has had more than 400 of her songs recorded by over 1,000 artists. A hundred of those songs became hit singles. All of that success came at a time when people had to shell out some serious coin for hard copies, i.e., records.

But Carole King’s life and career didn’t involve an easy ride.

“She was song writing in a time dominated by men,” says Chilina Kennedy. “She was quite brilliant. I don’t know if many people know how many number one hits she wrote and how much material that we listen to came from her.”

Kennedy, herself, is no slouch. Born in Oromocto, New Brunswick, she lacked a geographic stability through her younger years. The daughter of a career military officer, the family moved regularly, often spending less than a year in each location. Finally, to provide some sense of a safe nest, her family made Kingston home during her high school years. While her father continued to travel for military duties, Chilina and mom remained close to home.

Kennedy attended Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI). While there, she immersed herself in theatre, music and dance. She also attended Kingston School of Dance and trained under Len Stepanick.

“I loved my time at Kingston School of Dance,” she says. “And Ian Malcolm at KCVI was great.”

While in Kingston, Kennedy made her first trip to New York.

“When dad worked at the United Nations, we visited him in New York,” says Kennedy. “I might be a small town girl, but if I had to pick a big city, it would be New York where I’d live.”

During post-secondary training in theatre at Sheridan College, she made a trip to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, to see a Canadian actor she admired perform in the lead role in Anne of Green Gables. Kennedy had played the role herself on the stage of KCVI.

“I went to see Tracy Michailidis,” says Kennedy. “After that, I was so inspired by Tracy. And then, later, I ended up playing that role in Charlottetown.”

It didn’t take long for Kennedy to become a darling of Canadian theatre. She has performed as a member of the Stratford Festival for several years. With her 2009 performance as Maria in West Side Story she became a Stratford star. Other roles at Stratford have included the lead in Evita, Rose of Sharon in Grapes of Wrath, Philia in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Lois Lane in Kiss Me Kate. She also performed in the Shaw Festival for three years and in Mirvish’s world premiere of The Lord of the Rings.

In 2012, she got her first taste of Broadway in the role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar, after the show transferred from Stratford to New York. But the production lasted less than four months on Broadway and it was back to Stratford for Kennedy.

In 2014, she had to withdraw from the Stratford season when she became pregnant. But in an odd twist of fate, that opened the door for the biggest role of her career.

Kennedy was 32 weeks pregnant when she flew to New York City and auditioned for the role of Carole King in Beautiful. She landed the Beautiful part, replacing Tony Award winner Jessie Mueller. Then, shortly after giving birth to Henry, she performed as the lead in Hamilton’s Theatre Aquarius production of Mary Poppins. After that show ended, Chilina, her partner, Jacob James, and wee Henry moved to New York.

Now, six days a week, she performs in the world’s theatrical epicentre on the stage of Stephen Sondheim Theatre on West 43rd Street, a couple of blocks from Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

Kennedy reported in a recent interview in New York that “Carole King is a glass half-full kind of person and I think I’m a glass half-empty person sometimes.”

I asked her about that view.

“I just sometimes think it may be the nature we’re born with,” she says. “Carole King sort of talks about it in some of her songwriting. In the song Beautiful, she’s watching people on the subway with grumpy faces, yet she writes in such a beautiful way. She casts a happy shade of yellow on everything. I guess I’ve seen poverty and negative things, as has everyone, but I’m more beaten down by them. I’m learning to appreciate a glass half-full approach. To see the forgiveness Carole King has inspires me to be more that way.”

Kennedy explains that Carole King’s bravery extended to her public life.

“It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “Her bravery allowed her to tell her story publicly. She talks candidly and openly about physical abuse she suffered with one of her partners. She said if she reached one woman and that woman then went for help, it was worth it.”

The very existence of theatre is important to Kennedy.

“I truly believe that the theatre a culture produces reflects the values of that culture,” she says. “You can tell a lot about society by what kind of art is going on and how the arts are being produced. Theatre allows you to share with one another in a live experience. There’s a person-to- person energy exchange going on. It’s an experience you don’t get with TV or movies. It’s live, in the moment in front of you. It’s a way we connect that you don’t get on Facebook; you only get it in person-to-person contact.”

In some past performances, Kennedy has used a brilliant and interesting method of getting into her role and inside her character. She’d cover every mirror where she could see herself.

“It all gets a little much,” she says, “There are mirrors everywhere and we’re always looking at ourselves. Every time there’s a quick change, there’s a mirror to check yourself. Not to be too precious about it, but it’s not helpful. And it can be hard to get over, especially if you’ve had dance training where you’re always checking to make sure your form and lines are right, it’s hard to retrain the brain.”

So to get more into her roles, she would cover every mirror and dive into her character from the inside out, rather than looking at the outside appearance.

“It’s a form of sense memory,” she says. “When you are first learning something, if you are always checking yourself on the outside, the learning process becomes stressful. I want the learning to be something positive, not stressful. Now I don’t worry about mirrors so much, but I always try to remember what the character feels like from the inside out.”

She’s found another piece of life that helps keep her centred and grounded: a baby named Henry.

It’s hard to get your head stuck too high in the clouds when you’ve got a baby back here on Earth.

“When I get home from a performance and I see my baby, I realize what’s really important in life.”

As we chatted, there was no half-empty sense hovering over the interview. It was all positive. Open. Refreshing. Chilina Kennedy, despite her self-evaluation, strikes me as having an attitude quite like that in the role she plays in Beautiful.

For more information about Chilina Kennedy and the Broadway production, Beautiful, visit beautifulonbroadway.com and chilinakennedy.com.

Mark Bergin on Twitter @markaidanbergin.

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About Mark Aidan Bergin

Writer, editor, photographic artist specializing in dance, theater, concert, fashion and street photography....sometimes musician. Explorer of arts, culture and world, and all things Celtic and Gotham. On a good day, or perhaps a bad day, simply a mad (FOOBAR, not angry) scientist.
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