Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Book by Douglas McGrath
Director Marc Bruni
Reviewed by Ron Lee, CSP
There has been massive hype surrounding this production, so expectations were extremely high. So did this production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical live up to all of the pre-publicity? In brief, if I was limited to seeing only one musical in this decade, this would be it. I thought that it could be years before anything could match Jersey Boys, but Beautiful is up there along side it.
In that mix are brilliant productions of Aladdin, The Lion King, Singin’ In The Rain, We Will Rock You, Georgy Girl, Ghost The Musical and Kinky Boots. Like Jersey Boys and Georgy Girl, Beautiful takes us into the world of the most influential and musically significant period of the last hundred years, but it looks at the entire industry as well as just one performer or group. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, the New York songwriting fraternity produced the most memorable hits in history.
At the centre of the movement was Broadway’s Brill Building that was inhabited by such collaborations as Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry (“Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby”, “Then He Kissed Me”, “Do-Wah-Diddy”, “Baby I Love You”, “Chapel of Love”, “Leader of the Pack”, “River Deep Mountain High”), Burt Bacharach & Hal David and Leiber & Stoller (“Hound Dog”, “Yakety Yak”, “Kansas City”, “Fools Fall in Love”, “Jailhouse Rock”, “Treat Me Nice”, “King Creole”, “Little Egypt”, “My Boyfriend’s Back”, “Stand By Me”, “Spanish Harlem”, “Poison Ivy”). Performers who frequented the building included Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, Bobby Darin, Sonny Bono, Lesley Gore, Connie Francis, Ben E. King, Gene Pitney and Liza Minnelli.
Beautiful centres around the life and career of Carol Joan Klein who gained fame as Carole King, the most successful female songwriter in history. Her collaboration with first husband Gerry Goffin created hits for other performers. They included “Take Good Care of My Baby”, “Her Royal Majesty”, “The Loco-Motion”, “Go Away Little Girl”, “Up on The Roof”, “One Fine Day”, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, “Natural Woman”, “Run To Him” and the legendary “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”.
King was the talented, starry-eyed teenager who craved normality, fame and recognition, and Goffin was the troubled genius lyricist whose demons would eventually split the couple.
At age 16, Carole King visits the Brill Building and insists on seeing the most influential record producer of the time, Don Kirshner, who was known as “The Man With The Golden Ear”. He was looking of a song for The Shirelles and decided on Will You Love Me Tomorrow, which launched King’s amazing career. As an aside, it was Kirshner who created The Monkees to compete with the British Invasion, and that group became known as “The Pre-fab Four”. Also, Kirshner later stated that it’s an urban myth that Charles Manson auditioned for a role in The Monkees.
It wasn’t until 1971 that producer Lou Adler convinced King to record her own songs, and the definitive Tapestry album was created.
So how is the show?
Apart from the tension between King and Goffin, their friendly competitors are Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil who composed “Blame It on the Bossa Nova”, “On Broadway”, “Walking in The Rain”, “Saturday Night at the Movies”, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”.
Even though the characterisations of Neil Sedaka, The Chiffons and The Shirelles aren’t entirely accurate, it’s all about the music, and the performances are spectacular.
There are 24 hit songs in this show including, from Tapestry, “So Far Away”, “It’s Too Late”, “You’ve Got a Friend”, “Natural Woman” and “Beautiful”. In the first half, two versions of the classic, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” are performed; one is the slower original by Carole King and the other is the upbeat version by The Shirelles.
Another stand-out is “Loco-Motion” which was recorded by Little Eva Boyd, Goffin & King’s teenage baby sitter who was, coincidentally, only a year younger than King.
The clever script from Douglas McGrath’s book is entirely complementary and enhances the overall experience.
Matt Verevis is the hypochondriac Barry Mann and Amy Lehpamer is the doppelganger of the young Cynthia Weil. Lehpamer’s powerful voice and strong presence are highlights of the show. Mike McLeish provides a balance as the adult influence of Don Kirshner. The other principal adult character is Anne Wood who beautifully contributes a sharp edge as Genie Klein, Carole’s mother. Projecting swagger and later torment, Josh Piterman has also been ideally cast as Gerry Goffin. In fact, the casting for all of the roles has been exceptional. There are no weaknesses in this line-up.
That brings us to the role of Carole King herself. To state that Esther Hannaford is absolutely brilliant would be an understatement. Her character and emotion-imbued, soaring vocals are exquisite. Sometimes heard is the saying that an actor “was born to play the part”. I haven’t felt that about any performer…until now. Hannaford is faultless, and when she emerged from upstage to take her first curtain call, I spontaneously leapt to my feet. How do you find enough superlatives to describe that performance?
If you don’t see anything else this year, make sure that you catch Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Star City Lyric Theatre. I’ll be seeing it again.