The Tony Award-winning 2014 musical tells the stories behind the songs of a pop icon
This is a review of the Sydney season of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
The world is still recovering from the wave of jukebox musicals that came as a tsunami at the start of the century, when the hits of everyone from Billy Joel to The Proclaimerswere rehashed for the stage.
With notable exceptions, it felt like every show in the genre believed the hard work began and ended with securing the rights to a vaguely prominent artist’s back catalogue.
One of those exceptions was Jersey Boys, the amazing tale of Frankie Valli and his journey to form the Four Seasons. It adapted a strong true story into a gripping narrative that not only tied the songs together, but was genuinely worthy of a show in and of itself. Every scene, every song, contributed to the whole, to build a near perfect musical experience that captivates with story, but celebrates with music.
The first half of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical matches the standard set by that success story in every regard: story, shock value and amazing songs. Douglas McGrath’s book uses the frankly stunning career of Carole King as the building blocks to craft a captivating tale.
Carole has written more than 1,000 songs that have been performed by a variety of artists, as well as giving the world her rightly famed Tapestry album among others. Impressively, while the audience is left gobsmacked by the sheer deluge of recognition – as hits from ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow to ‘The Locomotion’ are doled out at a rate of knots – the focus never once leaves the fantastic up and down tale of Carole’s husband and writing partner Gerry Goffin.
This swiftly becomes a four-hander, as the rival songwriting partnership of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil is introduced, and as they are enmeshed in Carole’s story they spark it into a stage-worthy epic.
McGrath makes this a whimsical, meaningful and yes, beautiful tale. He is ably assisted by his four leads: Amy Lehpamer in particular threatens to steal the show at times as Cynthia, while Esther Hannaford in the lead is a delight, even if her accent threatens to morph at times into that of Audrey in her recent award-winning run of Little Shop of Horrors.
Most impressively, the songs remain the heroes. The device of King’s songwriting office is used to manufacture a supremely talented ensemble who morph from colleagues into the Chiffons or the Drifters seemingly instantaneously, and more often than not pick up Carole’s intro to deliver a full stage crowd pleaser.
The result is a show that leaves the audience at intermission yearning for more of the same.
Unfortunately, the second half of the show offers its audience significantly less. If the first act deftly avoided all the pitfalls of jukebox musicals, it’s shorter conclusion falls into a few of them. The narrative shifts into a far more prosaic recreation of the key moments that inform Carole’s life, providing far too much literal recreation over poetry or story. Rather than working together, the story and the songs seem too often at odds.
As a result the show shuffles rather than soars to its chosen conclusion, culminating in a surprisingly lacklustre delivery of the title track as closing number.
Beautiful is an eye-opening experience for the revelations regarding Carole’s life and her stunningly prolific and well-known work, but its front-loading of excellence will leave audiences content rather than ecstatic.