Left – Esther Hannaford. Cover – Esther Hannaford and Josh Piterman. Photos – Joan Marcus
Best known as the long-haired, barefoot singer/songwriter on the cover of Tapestry, Carole King had already had a successful career writing hit tunes for pop, rock and R&B stars, when she released Tapestry in 1971, with its unforgettable songs: ‘I Feel the Earth Move’, ‘A Natural Woman’, and ‘Beautiful’. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is the story of that productive decade before King’s emergence into the spotlight.
‘A Natural Woman’ indeed, Esther Hannaford is back on her home ground of Melbourne in the starring role of Beautiful, which premiered in Sydney last year. Carole King herself approved the choice of Hannaford to play in the Australian production of this Broadway musical, and the Melbourne actor/singer has done her proud, channelling King’s extraordinary energy and unassuming musical genius.
This is the perfect story for musical theatre: two song-writing teams compete to write the most hits in the burgeoning industry of pop music in the early 1960s. Here we have musical ambition, teenage love, marriage crises, a swathe of Top Ten hits performed with showbiz panache, and some of the best-remembered and powerful songs of all time, delivered here with the lightest of touches, an ironic flick of the heels or an exaggerated twist of the hips.
More importantly, it is one woman’s story, long overdue: the story of Carole King, the most successful female songwriter in history, who, with her partner and lyricist Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman), wrote an endless stream of hits: ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ for The Shirelles, ‘Take Good Care of My Baby’ for Bobby Vee, ‘The Loco-Motion’ for their babysitter Little Eva, ‘Up on the Roof’ for The Drifters. King and Goffin were sought out by the top acts to write songs that would showcase their particular talents, and endear them to teenage audiences around the world.
Hannaford, between recreating King’s two powerhouse solo performances at Carnegie Hall in 1971, which bookend the show, builds the character of King in a sensitive and moving performance, complete with faultless Brooklyn accent. She demonstrates King’s evolvement from nervous teenage musician, through dynamic songwriter at Aldon Music and wife to Gerry and mother of two kids, to the woman who makes the decision to sing her own songs.
Piterman, as Gerry, has his own trajectory to follow. He starts out as a swaggering college student, matures into a loving partner (Piterman performs both with charm and confidence), and from there descends, not so convincingly, into mental illness. The other songwriting team, Cynthia Weil (Lucy Maunder) and Barry Mann (Mat Verevis), combine powerful vocals and acting prowess. Maunder is particularly charismatic as the self-made Cynthia, a lyricist with a ready wit.
Douglas McGrath’s script tells the story with tight dialogue, deft characterisation and plenty of one-liners. Derek McLane’s set design comprises a network of spaces that shift seamlessly into new combinations to allow transitions from front-stage show-stopping numbers to behind-the-scenes songwriters at their pianos, to sound recording studios, to domestic lounge rooms. Along the way, we see the inner workings of 1650 Broadway, where the magic happens, and where Don Kirscher (Mike McLeish), holds sway over his protégés, playing one against the other to produce the next Number One hit. McLeish brings a jaunty authority to a role that demands a lot of standing still listening to demos, and fine-tunes his timing to extract every possible laugh. Anne Wood, as Carole King’s mother, sews up the comedy with her caustic humour and bitter cynicism.
The cast is entirely Australian, a tribute to the extraordinary standard of young Australian talent. Eighteen of the 24-strong cast are ensemble members, accomplished singers/dancers/actors who take multiple roles in the narrative and the performing spots. All the singers, such as Ruva Ngwenya and Rebecca Selley to name but two, are first-class. Jason Arrow’s performance as Neil Sedaka singing ‘Oh Carol’ is priceless.
Beautiful is a finely crafted, highly polished gem that tells one of the most uplifting stories to come out of the high-octane musical era, the 1960s, and pays tribute to the woman who created a lasting legacy with her compositions. This superb production marks a high spot in Australian musical theatre.
Michael Cassel in association with Paul Blake & Sony/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner presents
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
by Douglas McGrath
Director Marc Bruni
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre | 219 Exhibition Street, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 22 Feb – 24 June 2018
Tickets: $60 - $195
Bookings: 132 849 | ticketek.com.au