Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was a revelation for me. Like most of us, I was of course familiar with her most renowned hits, such as ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman’. But my strongest personal connection to Carole King was as an actor, for her role in Gilmore Girls. So Act 1 was a huge education. I had no idea that King had been a professional songwriter since she was 16, or that she had written so many hits alone and with her husband Gerry Goffin.
The role of Carole King was played by local performer Esther Hannaford, and she did a stellar job. I’m not an expert on King’s music, so I can’t say for sure how exactly Hannaford imitates her singing style. But Hannaford is totally believable in the role. The audience sees King’s heart, growth and talent expressed through Hannaford’s performance, and it is powerful.
The show is not just about King’s life however. It is about the music of the time, and it is about relationships – between family, friends and lovers. King and Goffin (played by Josh Piterman), had a volatile relationship. Many of the songs that King wrote alone reflect the ups and downs of their life together and her depth of feeling, which made them perfect to construct a musical around.
This tour through the music of the sixties and into the very early seventies also revolves around the music written by Cynthia Weil (portrayed by Lucy Maunder) and Barry Mann (played by Mat Verevis), who were peers, competitors and close friends of King and Goffin. The competition between the two couples was responsible for a significant number of the hits of the time, and the show brings them to life, from the initial creation in their offices at 1650 Broadway through to performances by iconic names such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Righteous Brothers, Little Eva and Janelle Woods and the Chiffons.
The direction, staging and all aspects of the performance are sharp and tight. Scene changes occur often, but never interrupt the flow of the show. Each transition is slick and effortless, facilitated by props (such as pianos) that glide off the stage as if by magic and sets that fly in from above smoothly and transform the stage. Derek McLane’s scenic design takes the audience from a New York home, to the interior of the the recording building (complete with recording equipment, musical instruments and ‘on air’ signs), to club interiors, performance venues, a ski lodge in Vermont and a house in the suburbs. Each flat creates the feeling of the venue without literal accuracy. Colour and design are used very effectively to create an eye catching set that transports the viewer to each new location, in an aesthetically pleasing way.
The lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski enhances each new environment. A background flat covered in brightly coloured lights sets the scene for the Drifters live performances, while more subtly lit draped satin frames the Shirelles.
The costume design, by Alejo Vietti, works alongside the sets and lighting to transport us between scenes. The costume choices show the passage of time, as clothing and hair styles change throughout the sixties, culminating in King’s Carnegie Hall performance in 1971. They also highlight the character differences between individuals such as King and Weil. And the bright colours of the costumes for all of the ‘live’ musical performance help bring the scenes to life and add to the energy of the songs. These costumes are clearly inspired by those worn by the artists being portrayed (The Drifters did wear some eye-catching suits!) but are often more colourful and elaborate than the originals. But Beautiful is a piece of musical theatre, not a documentary, and the bright colours and elegant designs create just the right atmosphere. The choreography by Josh Prince is designed in a similar way. Dance numbers are reserved for the musical ‘performances’ within the show – there is no scenes of the cast randomly breaking into song and dance! The choreography is clearly modelled on the original style of the performers, but makes use of the size of the stage, and the freedom provided by wireless mics to elaborate on the choreography, particularly in the case of The Drifters.
The music was supervised by Jason Howland and Musically Directed by Daniel Edmonds. There were some entertaining arrangements, such as the medley of sixties music at the start of Act 1, and overall, the musical performances are spot on. This show is grounded very much in reality – it is telling a true story.
The songs are all performed in context, and for that reason, many of the songs are supposed to be demos and sight reading. So, they do not all have the polish we usually expect in a stage musical. But this is very clever, because there is a distinct transition when actual ‘performances’ are occurring, and we don’t see the true talent of King as a singer until the 2nd act, when the strong emotion behind her music encourages King to put aside her shyness at singing in public and record and perform herself. In the re-enactment of the 1971 Carnegie Hall concert Hannaford lets loose and shows us what they both can really do. The only possible criticism regarding sound is a slight momentary imbalance with the band in the quieter moments of some of Hannaford’s numbers.
Beautiful was masterly directed by Marc Bruni. Each scene evolves so naturally, the staging is unobtrusive and highly effective. The show has amazing momentum, and keeps the audience engaged constantly. While some scenes are quite emotional (I was literally brought to tears on at least one occasion), there was also a lot of humour. In writing the book, Douglas McGrath has captured a droll, self-deprecating humour from Carole King, Cynthia Weil is full of witty comebacks and Barry Mann is the foil for many humorous references to his hypochondria.
Melbourne musical theatre seems to be going from strength to strength. With each review I am often tempted to refer to it being the best musical I have seen. Beautiful: The Carole King Story entertained me, educated me and inspired me. And now I think I’m off to purchase Tapestry on iTunes….
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.