BEAUTIFUL - THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL
BEAUTIFUL: THE CAROLE KING MUSICAL, Lyric Theatre, 23 September and booking now to 23 December 2017. Photography by Joan Marcus: above - Esther Hannaford, below - the Shirelles; below again - 1650 Broadway’s two best songwriting teams
The public’s hunger for musical theatre isn’t surprising: there’s always a deep yearning for a bit of joy and lightness in dark days – think Broadway and the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1930s – and you get that by the bucketful in this lavish bio-show.
Carole Klein, who renamed herself the WASP-ier Carole King, was a nice, exceedingly smart daggy girl from Brooklyn who, at just 17, sold her first song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” which went to No.1 for The Shirelles. Since then King has become one of the most successful pop artists – composer, lyricist and finally, singer – ever.
Beautiful is book-ended by songs from King’s triumphant solo appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1971, in between is the story of the prodigy who began piano at the age of four and – as uncannily portrayed by Esther Hannaford – has since been pelted with more musical honours than any other female artist of the 20th century. And she’s still a nice, smart dag!
That’s obviously been the tricky part of making a show about King: she is so nice, such a decent woman (activist Democrat and environmentalist) and absolutely everyone who’s anyone loves and admires her; including her kids and ex-husbands. So, without her first writing partner, then husband Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman) to beef up the narrative with infidelity and character flaws, Beautiful could just as easily have been titled Polly Anna Goes to the Grammies.
As well as utilising Goffin’s darker side, book writer Douglas McGrath craftily foregrounds Goffin and King’s best pals and friendly rivals, the other hit-making machine of the day, Cynthia Weil (Amy Lehpamer) and her guy Barry Mann (Mat Verevis). McGrath was also somewhat constrained by the living presence of all four principals – Goffin died in 2014 and had attended the show’s premiere, not that the two events were connected. Consequently Beautiful is a lovely show with dark moments that emanate only from Goffin’s simple human failings.
This is a curious thing to consider (and could be the subject of a whole other show) because what is clear from the beginning is that this nice white kid – and the other three nice white kids – wrote and made hits for black artists (as well as cute white boy Bobby Vee) at a time when popular music was still somewhat segregated, on air at least.
Nevertheless, on this stage, in this show, the Shirelles burst into life in glittering 60s outfits, tight choreography and even tighter harmonies; along come the Drifters for their luscious version of “Up On The Roof”. Then, when Carole is racking her brain for a suitable singer for “Locomotion”, Gerry says to their black babysitter, “Come on Little Eva, think!” And Chloe Zuel whips off her nanny dress to rip into the song (no, Millennials, Kylie did not originate it). It’s a story within a story and remains unexplored.
What does get a good work-out, however, in director Marc Bruni’s polished production is the geometry-and-lights set (designer Derek McLane, costumes Alejo Vieti, lighting Peter Kaczorowski) and Josh Prince’s era-appropriate choreography. The all-Australiasian company is simply fabulous: singing and dancing up a storm. The principals are all-star standard, starting with Esther Hannaford who has somehow mastered the deceptively fragile, slightly nasal quality of King’s distinctive voice while physically growing from gawky teenager, to shy adult to assured star performer in the two and a half hours’ running time.
With her all the way is the splendid Amy Lehpamer who has the inner light of her own star presence as the sassy, more worldly Cynthia Weil. As the troubled Gerry Goffin, Josh Piterman is a convincingly sultry bodgie who finally grows up, too late, while "We Gotta Get Outta This Place”, the song made huge by The Animals, is given an authentic bluesy rendition by Mat Verevis as Barry Mann.
As Don Kirshner, the Big Kahuna of hit factory 1650 Broadway, Mike McLeish is a significant principal support presence, as is Anne Wood as Carole’s acerbic mom, Genie. Both performers tell you a lot about the quality and care lavished on this production, as does the depth of talent in the ensemble, among which are fine soloists and dancers. And, of course, the music – by Goffin and King, Mann and Weil, with no flimsy filler – is simply spectacular, with hit after hit after hit played by a small but well chosen pit band of bass, drums, guitars, pianos, brass and reeds (musical director Daniel Edmonds).
Beautiful ends as it begins, with sweet, brilliant, modest and truly astonishing Carole and in the role, Esther Hannaford shows us how and why she is all those things. Hers is a great performance, both powerhouse and subtle; the same can be said of the company. It’s an exhilarating night out and you’ll be spoilt for choice for songs to hum on the way home. Totally recommended.