Beautiful: The Carole King Musical pays homage to one of the greatest female singer-songwriters of all time. Opening on Broadway in January 2014, it took home two Tony Awards and a Grammy and is still running. The subsequent London production, which opened in February 2015, was also a resounding success, playing for two and a half years and winning two Olivier Awards. A UK tour kicked off earlier this month.
Local audiences are now getting their opportunity to experience Beautiful for the first time, as the Australian premiere production takes the stage at the Sydney Lyric Theatre.
Directed by Marc Bruni, with a book by Douglas McGrath and choreography by Josh Prince, Beautiful follows Brooklyn-raised Carol Klein (King was her self-selected stage name) from the age of 16. Her mother, Genie (Anne Wood) is keen to see her gifted daughter pursue a career in education. King, on the other hand, is determined to write pop songs. She travels to New York City to famous publishing house Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway, where she meets Don Kirshner (Mike McLeish), once described as ‘The Man with the Golden Ear’. Kirshner agrees to buy a song King has penned, and it marks the beginning of an exceptional career in music.
While studying at New York’s Queens College, King meets chemistry student Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman), an aspiring playwright. The two begin a songwriting and romantic relationship. They write ‘Will you love me tomorrow’, which is released by The Shirelles and reaches number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. ‘Up on the roof’, recorded by The Drifters, follows and is a further huge success for King and Goffin, with ‘The Locomotion’, performed by the duo’s own babysitter Little Eva, providing their next number one.
Very quickly, King and Goffin find success as a songwriting team, but a fork in the road appears when King falls pregnant at 17. They marry and while it seems they’re happy for some time, it’s not long before the cracks appear. King’s dream is for her family to have a traditional, suburban life, but Goffin feels stifled by that vision and is interested in a freer lifestyle. Eventually, after years in a volatile marriage plagued by Goffin’s numerous infidelities, the two divorce and it’s not too long after that when King finds the necessary courage to lend her own vocals to the songs she writes and begins a new chapter as a recording artist. In 1971, she releases her landmark Tapestry album – a record that goes on to sell more than 25 million copies across the world. In the same year, King makes her debut at one of the world’s music meccas, Carnegie Hall.
As we follow King and Goffin on their journey as songwriters, we also chart their relationship with their close friends and fellow songwriting duo, Cynthia Weil (Amy Lehpamer) and Barry Mann (Mat Verevis). Also writers at 1650 Broadway, there was a friendly but competitive rivalry between the two teams, and some of Weil’s and Mann’s chart successes are also documented in the show, including ‘On Broadway’ for The Drifters, ‘You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’’ for the Righteous Brothers and ‘We gotta get out of this place’ for The Animals. As an audience, we’re spoiled with performances of pop gems of the era.
Many jukebox musicals have played Australian stages and while most offer theatregoers a nostalgic and entertaining concert experience, few are anchored by engaging stories. Beautiful joins the ranks of the likes of Jersey Boys as a show with strength in both respects. It tells a genuinely moving story about an artist, the astonishing artistic highs she achieved, and the tumultuous road she travelled along the way. It touches on weighty issues such as marital breakdown, drug abuse and mental illness, but conveys an immensely optimistic message that unexpected turns in life can ultimately result in something magnificent.
Bruni’s direction ensures audiences are served a slick and seamlessly interwoven presentation of exuberant musical numbers and storytelling, in which performers well utilise Derek McLane’s inventive and almost continuously-moving set. There are no lulls in the show, each development in the narrative warranting inclusion, and nothing feels clunky.
On the music side, Daniel Edmonds and his orchestra deliver a wonderful performance of the score, their reproduction of each hit song making it almost impossible for one to sit still in their seat.
And as far as the performers are concerned, the cast of Beautiful is yet another reminder of the remarkable music theatre talent pool we have today. As King, Hannaford is outstanding. Her portrayal gives audiences precisely the King that book writer McGrath describes: a musical genius who never loses her humility, is kind and compassionate, and who, despite her extraordinary musical prowess, is innately relatable. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, and yet Hannaford’s performance is characterised by such authenticity. Vocally, she is flawless and injects fragility and emotion into her performance of each of King’s classic tracks.
Piterman is well cast and highly convincing as the Brooklyn-born chemist and lyricist. Especially impressive is his portrayal of Goffin later in the relationship, when he begins to show signs of mental illness. Despite his character’s frequent philandering, Piterman ensures Goffin remains sympathetic. Lehpamer reminds us that she is one of the finest musical theatre performers in Australia today. The character has a fair share of the production’s funniest lines and, as Weil, she is smart, sharp and sassy. Playing both Weil’s song-writing and romantic partner, Verevis is excellent in his professional music theatre debut. In his portrayal of Mann, he demonstrates great comedic timing and showcases his sizeable vocal talent. His performance of ‘We gotta get out of this place’ is one of the production’s musical highlights.
Rounding out the principal cast, industry veterans McLeish and Wood are strong players as Kirshner and Klein respectively. The ensemble, meanwhile, is replete with top talent, portraying some of the 1960s’ biggest chart stars – from The Drifters to The Righteous Brothers, The Shirelles to Little Eva – in powerhouse performances.
Beautiful is a rare beast – a jukebox show with an absorbing narrative that sends audiences away having experienced more than a fun trip down memory lane. It’s a wonderful opportunity for young and old theatregoers to learn about the life of a female icon and discover (or re-discover) the tremendous music catalogue that has enshrined her in pop music history. Some kind of wonderful, indeed!
BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Now playing until Sunday 21 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Pirrama Road, Pyrmont)
Tickets: From Ticketmaster on 136 100 or www.ticketmaster.com.au
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