Celebrating Carole

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

Spotlight Theatrical Company, Halpin Auditorium

May 14 – June 5

Last month, Carole King was announced amongst the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2021 diverse list of inductees. King, who was previously inducted with co-songwriter Gerry Goffin in 1990, is one of the most prolific female musicians in the history of pop music, whose career and legacy are celebrated in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”, a jukebox musical beloved by all who experience its joy.

For many, the work of this immensely talented American songwriter and singer is epitomised in her iconic Tapestry album so it is appropriate that it is celebration of this multi-Grammy-award-winning landmark studio album that bookends the moving musical, which opens with King in 1971, as a bonafide solo star, about to perform at Carnegie Hall, after having left behind an established, successful song writing career with her husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin. It is a big story and a potentially risky show choice for an amateur theatre company, however, in the case of Spotlight’s Theatre’s production, it is risk that comes with immense reward thanks to the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members Gabriella Flowers as King, Todd Jesson as Goffin, Rachel Love as Cynthia Weil and Bryn Jenke as Barry Mann.

The biopic chronologically follows Carole King’s rise in the world of music through her tumultuous marriage with husband and song writing partner, Gerry Goffin, as well her relationship with rival composer and lyricist couple Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The result is a setlist that features celebration of the greatest hits by the acts for which the couples wrote, as well as King’s later original songs such as ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’, making for a hugely accessible show.

Flowers gives a solid, fierce and fresh performance as she takes the musical’s protagonist from excitable 16-year-old surprised to have the attention of the dreamiest guy in school, through her time as a hardworking professional to being a mature single mother and accomplished performer. Jesson is an empathetic performer who layers the difficult role of King’s unfaithful and troubled husband with sincerity and sensitivity, which amplifies the complication of the situation in which King finds herself.

Love makes Weil sassy and confident without tipping her into obnoxious territory and Jenke is very entertaining as hyperbolical hypochondriac Barry Mann, complete with a well-timed quip for every occasion. And all of them handle the required accents with ease. The ensemble cast, too, is excellent with Rob Kebba anchoring things throughout as ‘the man with the Golden Ear’, legendary American music publisher, music consultant, rock music producer, talent manager and songwriter Donnie Kirshner.

With the two song writing teams turning out an amazing parade of songs, the audience is treated to a musically strong act one, with hilghlights including ‘On Broadway’ and ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ which soon have everyone smiling widely and tapping happily along. Flowers’ voice is strong throughout, whether sweet, soulful or gutsied-up. Her versatility is seen as she yearns us into intermission with ‘One Fine Day’ upon Carole’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity, before registering the intense discovery of her own voice in Act Two’s commanding ‘It’s Too Late’ description of a relationship’s end.

When Jenke’s robust vocals are shared in Act Two’s changing musical sounds with the iconic ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’, (which accompanying distinctive bass) we are left lamenting that there are not more musical numbers for him to share. The 1965 rock hit for the Animals, written by Mann and Weil comes late in the charted competition between the two couples to not only see their hits become number ones but stay there the longest. Prior to it, we are treated to songs from artists such as The Drifters, The Shirelles, The Monkees and more.

Under Matt Pearson’s musical direction, the harmonies in the earlier-era songs, are especially satisfying, with The Drifters’ ‘Up on the Roof’ representing a high point thanks to Matthew McKenzie’s range. Similarly, Liam Lockwood switches effortlessly into falsetto, working wonderfully with Mitch Walsh’s bass tone to soar the Righteous Brothers’ ‘ultimate pop record’ number to spine-tingling heights. And the live orchestration of the boppy band includes some entertaining arrangements, such a medley of familiar sixties songs ‘1650 Broadway Medley’ early in Act One as we are first taken into Kirshner’s office at for the first time.

Clever staging doesn’t compromise anything from professional productions of the 2013 musical, backdropping for example, the ski lodge of a Vermont getaway with a framed-off section of the recording building. And in complement to Kim Reynolds’ tight direction, swift set transitions assist in maintaining momentum. Era-evocative costumes by Trish Nissan, Colleen Reynolds and Kim Reynolds take the audience to an Act Two that is very firmly placed in the 1960s and give us a standout costuming reveal in Little Eva’s (Sammy Price) peppy performance of ‘Locomotion’.

With all of these on-point elements combined, Spotlight Theatre’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is certainly deserving of its end of show standing ovation. Indeed, it is easy to understand why the season sold out before even opening. “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is that kind of musical though… a joyous crowd favourite of an experience whose additional matinee show feels akin to a cosy musical hug on a cool almost-winter afternoon.

Photos c/o – Vargo Studios

Some kind of wonderful

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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“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.

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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.