Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
QPAC, Lyric Theatre
July 13 – September 2
“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, is as its title suggests, is a musical tribute to one of the greatest female singer-songwriters of all time. Everyone knows Carole King’s songs, maybe without even realising it, such is the extraordinary legacy of this ordinary woman’s immense talent. This means that the show has a wide appeal, allowing each audience member to bring their own memories to its experience. For me it is recall of Murphy Brown singing ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ to her newborn son and, from the guilty pleasure of “Dirty Dancing”, ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, one of the first hits King wrote in partnership with her then-husband Gerry Goffin for The Shirelles.
The true story of Carole King’s extraordinary rise from behind-the-scenes songwriter to solo-act stardom opens with her first concert performance in front of an audience (at Carnegie Hall no less), following the multi-Grammy-award-winning success of her landmark second studio album “Tapestry”. The story then rewinds to her early days as a piano prodigy in Brooklyn, writing music after school before becoming a professional songwriter at 16. While studying at New York’s Queens College, King (Esther Hannaford) meets aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman). As their songwriting and romantic relationships soar, they produce a considerable number of the hits of the time for artists such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, The Monkees and more.
The show is not just about King’s life and her ultimately tumultuous marriage however; especially in Act One, it explores the idea of song writing as a commodity through chronicling the competitive friendship between King and Goffin and song-writing peers Barry Mann (Mat Verevis) and Cynthia Weil (Lucy Maunder). The competition not only adds to the drama, but allows for a journey through the music of the ‘60s as the audience is also treated to Mann and Weil’s chart successes and iconic songs, distinctive in their sounds despite the era’s desire for formulaic homogeneity. The show’s period impersonations of the artists who sang the songs make for some memorable moments. Barry Conrad, Marcus Corowa, Nana Matapule and Joseph Naim make The Drifters’ ‘On Broadway’ a razzle dazzle high-point, while Jason Arrow and Andrew Cook soar ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ as The Righteous Brothers. And the live orchestration, led by Musical Director/Conductor Daniel Edmonds includes some entertaining arrangements, such a medley of sixties songs early in Act One.
Direction is tight and the showcase of hit songs allows not only for quick scene transitions of Derek McLane’s slick design, but changes to hair and wardrobe to chronicle the passage of time through the decade of ‘60s sweet girl groups, boy bands, crooners, doo-wop and dance songs like ‘The Locomotion’. As the sensibilities of the time change, there is increasing instability in Goffin and King’s marriage and, after Goffin’s infidelity and mental break-down leaves King yearning into intermission with ‘One Fine Day, she finds her own voice in Act Two’s earnest description of the end of a loving relationship, ‘It’s Too Late’, in move towards “Tapestry” and her triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall performance.
While there are no weak links in the cast, this is clearly Esther Hannaford’s show; she is tremendously talented and it is easy to appreciate her Best Female Actor in a Musical Helpmann Award win. She is effervescent as the self-confessed ‘square’, Jewish good-girl with an old-woman sensibility, conveying a perfect balance of humility and empowerment. Like her accent, her imitation of King’s singing style is uncanny, both in big numbers like the up-tempo Act Two closer, ‘Beautiful’ and the pure and emotionally-honest reassurance of ‘You’ve Got a Friend’.
“A good song makes you feel like there is a friend in the room with you”, a 16-year-old Carole tells her mother in response to suggestion that women should teach, not write, music. Luckily for the world, she stayed true to her calling to define a career of hits as a songwriter and later singer. It is an inspiring story that makes for a must-see show that is as entertaining as it is empowering, with some wonderful comic moments too, most notably from Jason Arrow as a pop-out Neil Sedaka singing his hit ‘Oh! Carol’ (named after King after the pair dated in high school) and from the smart comebacks of straight-talking, sassy Cynthia.
In the case of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, the ravers really are right; it is some kind of wonderful in every single way. Indeed, like a comfortable lazy Sunday afternoon movie that can be watched over and over again, it is a toe-tapping musical experience that immediately inspires a return visit for continued appreciation of its five 2018 Helpmann Awards, including the most coveted Best Musical.