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.

Hilarious Horrors

Little Shop of Horrors (Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 1 – 12

Typically musical theatre implies a kaleidoscope of colour on stage. But, not so for Act One of “Little Shop of Horrors”. Mr Mushnik’s Skid Row flower shop and surrounds are monochromed to Tim Burtoneque effect. Everything is grey – set, props and costumes alike… everything except for the plant at the centre of the story and the blood of its first human feed.

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This film noire feel to its Act One filter reflects the show’s 1960s setting of a run-down florist and also suggests its spoof of B grade horror flicks. The aesthetic shows a notable attention to detail, especially in its perfectly kitsch costuming (courtesy of designer Tim Chappel) and when the colour returns after intermission, this meticulousness is amplified with realisation that costumes have been transformed from shades of grey to cartoonish vibrancy in all of their exactness.

Hapless orphaned botanist Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) dreams of a better life with thus-far-unrequited love, beautiful co-worker Audrey (Esther Hannaford), who is, instead, dating the sadistic dentist Orin Scrivello (Scott Johnson). When Seymour discovers a strange and interesting plant, which he names Audrey II, his fortunes change, but at a cost, for Audrey II develops a taste for human blood and will do anything to corrupt Seymour into appeasing its appetite.

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As the initially meek and mild but then increasingly hungry-for-celebrity Seymour, Brent Hill is endearing in his everyman sensibility. Most impressive, however, is the fact that he not only sings his own role but also voices Audrey II; it is not only a remarkable technical feat but it makes the laughter-filled ‘Feed Me (Git It)’ duet between the two even more memorable. The show’s other hilarious moments come from Johnson’s over-the-top characterisation of Audrey’s evil bully of a boyfriend; although he is a nasty, obnoxious character who enjoys inflicting pain and torture, his noisy and gleeful laugh of self-satisfaction is simply fabulous, helped along by his personal supply of laughing gas.

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But the real star is Audrey II, increasingly sassy in demand for food, beyond just the show’s iconic line. The plant is realised through a serious of ever-bigger puppets by Sydney-based company Erth Visual & Physical Inc, eventually taking over most of the stage to dominate Act Two, making for a truly striking spectacle.

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Despite its sinister subject matter, this is a show filled with humour. As shop owner Mr Mushnik, Tyler Coppin shows great comic timing and physical engagement, including in accompaniment with Hill in ‘Mushnick and Son’, complete with an energetic folk dance. Kuki Tipoki and Dash Kruck add to the ensemble, with Kruck transitioning between a variety of over-the-top characters with gleeful relish.

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Every aspect of “Little Shop of Horrors” is infectiously spirited, especially its music, performed by a five-piece offstage band led by Musical Director Andrew Worboys. Drawing inspiration from its 1960s rock roots, the catchy songs begin with ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, which remains as refrain in mind long after its end.

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Punctuating the account with this and other songs, and narration is the impressive harmonised trio of Josie Lane, Chloe Zule and Angelique Cassimatis (with some initial narrational assistance from Lee Lin Chin). But it is Hannaford who soars the most vocally; from the vulnerability of her ‘Somewhere that’s Green’ covet for a suburban life to the yearning of show’s big love ballad ‘Suddenly Seymour’, she is both heartbreaking and animated as the show’s ill-fated heroine.

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This cult tale of a carnivorous plant is far from usual musical fair; the comedy is dark (faithful to its musical origin and not the sanitised 1986 Rick Moranis/Steve Martin movie), but still full of fun and snappily paced. The creative team behind Hayes Theatre Company’s inaugural, lauded production of “Sweet Charity” two years ago, have again done something very special… special in that strange beautiful and absurd sort of way.