A glittering celebration of twentieth century pop music, the Australian premiere season of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is blessed with a superb local cast.
Owing a debt of gratitude to megahit Jersey Boys, 2014 Broadway musical Beautiful weaves the songs of Carole King, and others, into an account of her life story. Fans who are mainly aware of King’s earthy, personal album Tapestry may be surprised at her early career as a prolific pop song writer, when she co-wrote enduring hits such as “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “One Fine Day” and “Locomotion.”
While the cavalcade of hit songs will have greatest impact for Baby Boomers, a good proportion of the tunes will be known to all ages. Appreciative ripples of recognition greet the opening notes and words of many of the numbers, and the pristine performances of the songs is one of the show’s chief attractions.
While book writer Douglas McGrath makes every effort to link the songs to the personal narrative, the deliberate simplicity of the 1960s-era lyrics tends to undermine this. Towards the end of act one momentum flags with a series of songs sung by pop groups, but the focus returns to King and friends in act two as the story drives towards King’s eventual performance of her own songs.
It is difficult for a show about such a famous and successful subject to have an I wish song, so Beautiful opens with King at her peak in concert at Carnegie Hall, where she hints at the story to come by telling the audience that even when life doesn’t go the way you want you can still find something beautiful.
As a prodigious 16 year old growing up in Brooklyn, King sells her first song to producer Don Kirshner at New York’s 1650 Broadway building. She is soon ensconced in the building, churning out songs with husband Gerry Goffin and working alongside colleagues, and dear friends, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. Achieving money and fame so young, these kids could have become lost in the new freedoms of the 1960s, but they worked with competitive drive, egged on by Kirshner, to continually aim for that next number one hit.
Having dreamt of life in the suburbs, King was happy to become a mother at a young age, but encountered difficulties in her marriage to Goffin, who suffered from bipolar disorder. Mental illness is almost never referenced in musical theatre, and its presence here adds not just a sense of gravitas but also a grey area in terms of sympathy for the characters.
Already a proven talent, Esther Hannaford reinvents herself yet again as an unprepossessing New York girl with a breathy singing voice. Hannaford’s portrayal of the self-deprecating King benefits from her superb comic delivery, which is neatly countered by her success at capturing King’s raw vulnerability. This is a towering performance, all the greater for the way Hannaford makes her work appear so natural and easy. The show draws to an end with a string of Tapestry hits, and by this point the audience is so completely in Hannaford’s thrall that the line is blurred between performer and character.
Each of King’s song-writing colleagues is perfectly cast. Carrying much of the show, the lead quartet of young performers generate winning chemistry and, like their real life counterparts, are all quite gorgeous.
Josh Piterman is in superb form as Goffin, convincingly taking the character from a high school heartthrob to a husband and father tormented by his own unavoidable failings. The role provides welcome chances to enjoy the splendour of Piterman’s singing voice, but his key achievement is in the unflinching and affecting portrayal of Goffin’s mental illness.
Amy Lehpamer defines the term dream casting as self-confident songwriter Cynthia Weil. Lehpamer infuses a healthy dose of energy from her first scene, when Weil auditions for Kirshner with her own snappy lyrics to “Happy Days.” Blessed with much of the best of Alejo Vietti’s costume designs, Lehpamer looks divine and, more importantly, sings superbly and also underpins Weil’s brittle, driven nature with lashings of warmth and heart.
In a highly auspicious main stage debut, recent WAAPA graduate Mat Verevis more than holds his own alongside his more experienced cast mates. Barry Mann’s unflagging hypochondria is a bit of a one-note arc, but Verevis makes the man entirely likeable. A gifted singer, Veveris delivers a thrilling rendition of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” in act two.
Anne Wood brings her signature verve to King’s mother Genie Klein, lacing Klein’s well meaning platitudes with an acerbic undertone of thinly veiled judgement. Mike McLeish plays the thankless role of straight man Kirshner with solid presence and a twinkle of good humour.
While the main focus lies squarely on the four leads, the show features a multitude of opportunities for the hard working ensemble, and Vietti provides a multitude of stunning costumes. The Drifters score laughs with a knowing wink to the audience as they perform their deliberately cheesy choreography. Chloe Zuel stands out with a vivacious performance as babysitter-turned-pop-star Little Eva.
The production gleams in the newly renovated Sydney Lyric. Scenic designer Derek McLane and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski have collaborated to craft a fluid set that sparkles with an inner glow. The abstract rear backdrop is a clever collage of musical instruments and sound equipment.
Beautiful makes no apologies for its status as a piece of light entertainment (it’s right there in the title). For an evening of warm nostalgic pleasure it is very hard to beat.
Beautiful plays at Sydney Lyric Theatre.
Photos: Joan Marcus (yes, that Joan Marcus)