REVIEW: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel Group)

Esther Hannaford as Carole King, photographed by Joan Marcus

Do you feel the earth move under your feet, Brisbane? Beautiful: The Carole King Musical has arrived at QPAC and it is a joyful celebration of the life, work, and personal tenacity of the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century.

We were fortunate to attend the Brisbane premiere of the musical, which is directed by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Josh Prince, and it is easy to see why Beautiful swept the Helpmann Awards for 2018, presented just over a week ago. Within the Musical category, Beautiful was nominated in every sub-category except one, and was awarded as having the Best Director, Best Female Actor, Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role, and Best Musical.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical was written by Tony®, BAFTA® and Academy® Award-nominated Douglas McGrath, and follows the true story of Carole King’s life, from selling her first hit Will You Love Me Tomorrow at 17 to teenage pregnancy and a difficult marriage to her song-writing partner Gerry Goffin, and on to the international recognition she would eventually achieve. Artistic licence is exercised, as might be expected, in reimagining King’s extraordinary life – for example, there is no mention of The Chiffons, with One Fine Day being attributed to a fictional singer called Janelle Woods (played by Akina Edmonds) – but the core thread of King finding and claiming her power as a solo performer, and her often-arduous journey to reach that point, shines brightly throughout.

Carole King was writing number one hits for the biggest acts in rock ‘n’ roll by the time she was 20, but this story is not a story of fame or luxury – it charts decades of King’s hard work and dedication to her craft, even as she raised a family and managed her husband’s unpredictable behaviour. The musical also focuses closely on the competitive friendship that King and Goffin had with fellow songwriting duo Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

The soundtrack to the musical is filled with toe-tappers from the King-Goffin duo as well as Weil-Mann, including You’ve Got a Friend, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, Locomotion, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, On Broadway, and We Gotta Get Out of This Place. Orchestrations, vocals, and music are arranged by Steve Sidwell and the live music, conducted by Music Director Daniel Edmonds, is essential in a show that is so much about the music. Sets designed by Derek McLane change smoothly and mechanically, and different combinations of lighting designed by Peter Kaczorowski are used to create interiors, television studios, and stage backdrops.

Costuming by Alejo Vietti – including 170 pairs of shows and 96 wigs – showcases the evolving style from the 50’s through to the 70’s, and in different ways through the costuming of groups like The Shirelles and The Drifters, as well as through Cynthia’s chic fashion and Carole’s more plain attire. Quick changes from the ensemble were flawlessly executed and elicited gasps and applause from the audience, although a bracelet did go flying across the stage during One Fine Day.

Each of the four main actors bring a unique energy and dynamism to the stage. Esther Hannaford is humbly brilliant in the role of Carole King – her vocals are spine-tinglingly strong, and she captures every period of King’s life, from an optimistic teenager to a wife at her wits’ end to a star in her own right, and everything in between. Hannaford has a wonderful chemistry with Josh Piterman, who portrays Carole’s husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin with an emotional intensity that feels authentic. Lucy Maunder is confident and gutsy as Cynthia Weil, a wonderful contrast to Hannaford’s shrinking violet King, and she and Mat Verevis, who plays Barry Mann, have a playful but powerful onstage connection, with Verevis delivering most of the comedic one-liners in the show. Mike McLeish is fifties slick with a heart of gold as record produced Don Kirshner, and Anne Wood provides a bitter but comedic edge to Carole’s success story as Genie Klein, Carole’s divorcee mother.

Mat Verevis as Barry Mann and Lucy Maunder as Cynthia Weil, photographed by Joan Marcus

Beautiful has an ensemble of 18, and all do an impressive job across multiple roles. Barry Conrad, Marcus Corowa, Nana Matapule, and Joseph Naim have incredible energy as The Drifters; Rebecca Selley delights with her rendition of Uptown; Chlo√© Zuel’s vocals hold up as Little Eva, but her dancing is stiff in Locomotion; and Jason Arrow and Andrew Cook drew cheers from the audience with their portrayal of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.

There were often murmurs of recognition from the audience after just a few notes, but you don’t need to know anything about Carole King or her music to enjoy this musical for what it is – a traditional musical theatre arc, the story of incredible talent rising to the top beyond all trials and tribulations, supported by a magnificent soundtrack. Having said that, I was surprised by how many songs I recognised, which is ultimately a testament to the enduring quality of their music.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is an emotional journey and, ultimately, a joyful experience – the music is incredible, and the entire show is performed with such vigour and vivacity, it’s impossible not to clap along, or tap your toes. Beautiful will be playing at QPAC’s Lyric Theatre until September 2, and ticketing information is available via their website.