Theatre Review: Beautiful is so much more than the Carole King musical (now playing at Sydney Lyric)

If you enjoyed Jersey Boys then you’re sure to love the latest jukebox musical to hit Aussie shores: Beautiful – The Carole King Musical. Starring the sublime Esther Hannaford and featuring an incredible collection of hits, Beautiful is slickly produced and expertly performed. It’s a guaranteed good night out for all.

Billed as a musical about the life of singer-songwriter Carole King, Beautiful is really more of a showcase of the prolific hit-making machine that was Broadway in the 1960s. King is the catalyst for our introduction to the music factory, and yes, this is her story brought to life in true pop-musical style, but the show also pays homage to her song writing partner, Gerry Goffin, and their best friends and fellow melody-makers, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann.

This focus means many of the songs are first performed with simple piano accompaniment, often by the actors themselves. (And if they’re not playing for real they are selling it brilliantly.) As the songs build so, too, does the instrumentation, led by conductor Daniel Edmonds. While out of sight, the orchestra truly breathes life into the production, switching effortlessly from rock to pop and back again.

Musical fans who caught last year’s surprise smash hit, Luckiest Productions’ Little Shop of Horrors, will be familiar with Hannaford (who won a Sydney Theatre Award for her turn as Audrey). In Beautiful, Hannaford proves she can carry not just a tune but an entire show. She expertly transitions King from wide-eyed teenager, to frumpy wall-flower, to feminist icon. Vocally she sounds incredibly close to the real thing, delivering every number with power and heart. Hannaford’s performance is reason alone to see this show.

Playing King’s husband, Gerry Goffin, is Josh Piterman. Of the four leads, Piterman is probably the weakest link, but this is really just trying to find fault with a very strong cast. He has a manly physical presence, which suits the character who ultimately betrays our heroine, and manages the tricky Brooklyn accent believably.

No stranger to playing a pop icon, Amy Lehpamer takes on the role of lyricist Cynthia Weil. She has the audience in fits of laughter within minutes, delivering a poised, polished performance. While she has fewer opportunities to show-off her tremendous vocals, when given the chance she sure does belt out a tune. And the costumes of the era seem to suit her so well she might be in danger of being type-cast!

Rounding out the quartet is Mat Verevis, who makes his professional music theatre debut as Barry Mann. His baby face and small physique seem at odds with his powerful voice, which he really gets to let loose (along with his guitar skills) in Act Two. But it is his comic abilities that make Verevis the perfect match for the considerably more experienced Lehpamer.

There are seven other cast members making their debuts in this production, but their lack of stage time does not hamper the performance at all. In fact, the supporting cast, especially the musical acts (the Drifters, the Shirelles, the Righteous Brothers, etc), really make the show. Helping bring the well-known artists to life are gorgeous wigs by Charles G. La Pointe and impeccable costuming by Alejo Vietti.

Derek McLane’s set design is wonderfully urban and industrial. The backdrop for much of the first Act is a collage of sound studio furniture and props, painted in a perfect grid, bringing the ‘music factory’ concept to life. In front of this backdrop, tenement-style platforms add levels to the action and remind us that we’re in New York City. Revolves are used to slide furniture and props across the stage seamlessly, and this technique is put to excellent use in recreating the opposing offices of King/Goffin and Mann/Weil.

Adding the ‘show business’ to the set is the lighting, designed by Peter Kaczorowski. As the pop stars take control of the songs, neon lights drop from the ceiling and bright pinks and blues light up the proscenium, transporting us to the world of American Bandstand. In the more intimate scenes, follow spots keep us focused on the action and reduce the huge stage to small spheres of drama.

The choreography, by Josh Prince, is largely limited to the ‘performances’ of the all-girl/boy groups that turned King and Goffin’s songs into hits. It’s cheesy and dated and just right. We are, after all, talking about groups whose claim to fame was that they could sing and dance in perfect harmony. The first Act is dominated by these flashy, arm-waving sequences and the audience on opening night responded with increasingly loud, joyful whoops at the end of each number.

Perhaps it is the absence of these numbers that make Act Two feel a little flat. The action moves from the music factory to the suburbs, as we progress closer and closer towards King’s solo career. Act Two has more solo outings for Hannaford – who doesn’t disappoint – but King’s biggest hits are not exactly dance-floor fillers.

That said, each time the characters plonk out the opening bars of their next hit, another wave of nostalgia washes over the audience; every one of the songs in this show is immediately recognisable. If you can restrain yourself, I recommend not perusing the song list prior to the show. It adds an element of anticipation and surprise, which is egged on by portentous scripting and musical arrangement.

Perhaps the one flaw with this show is that, like so many pop-musicals, the story doesn’t go very deep. Goffin’s drug abuse and adultery, and their effect on King, are handled with a very light touch, and the story ends before we see King’s three other failed marriages (including her abuse at the hands of cocaine addict and third husband, Rick Evers). But such topics don’t often make for the feel-good night out Broadway musical audiences expect, and so Beautiful focuses instead on the triumph that is King’s career.

Like TV show Nashville, Beautiful is a tribute to the songwriter. Hidden from the spotlight, truly talented songwriters, like King, Goffin, Mann and Weil, are the real voice behind our favourite hits. Seeing and hearing their creations brought to life once more on stage is an uplifting and joyous experience. As Molly would say, do yourself a favour!

Beautiful – The Carole King Musical is playing at Sydney Lyric Theatre, Star Casino, until 23rd December. For tickets, visit http://www.beautifulmusical.com.au/

The reviewer attended opening night, Saturday 23rd September.

Photo credit Joan Marcus