Review: Beautiful. The Carole King Musical

Altona Theatre
7 to 22 July

I remained closer to home than usual on Saturday night so I could attend the latest production from Altona City Theatre and this time around, the Western theatre staple produced an adaptation of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for productions of Beautiful as Carole King is one of my all time favourite songwriters, I remember seeing it when it first came to Melbourne and I was almost in the Victorian amateur premiere production before covid hit and cancelled the entire season but that was three years ago. Nowadays, there are many requirements for Beautiful to work well and there are many factors that make it one of those shows that has to be done right or not at all. First, you must get the rights, enough said. Next, the catalogue of work by Carole King (solo and through her partnership with former husband the beloved Gerry Goffin) and Barry Mann and the late great Cynthia Weil is nothing short of timeless, so any take on their songs and story must be an honourable one and third, inclusivity is a necessity in our community more than ever and with many characters in the show being based on real BIPOC individuals, you must have a big enough BIPOC cast to portray these roles. Altona tackled the challenge of staging the spectacle head on, making sure that they checked off each requirement and after finally witnessing what is now the official amateur premiere in Victoria come to fruition, the company demonstrated that it was well worth the wait and would make all its real life counterparts proud in every aspect. 

Taking his rightful place in the director’s chair was veteran theatre performer and director Tyler Hess, who’s two decades long experience was put to good use in order to bring Carole King’s story to Melbourne’s amateur stage. Through his creative vision, Hess managed to capture the essence one needs to adapt Beautiful successfully, as we the audience were transported right back to the heart of the 1960s and 70s New York music scene from the ingenious set design right down to the accents and vocal stylings of the writers and artists present in the era. Thanks to his ingenious and insightful take on King’s empowering story, older spectators were treated to an incredible tribute to what many consider a golden age of songwriting while younger crowds were introduced to timeless musical classics that still influence creative individuals to this day. Ben Moody had his work cut out for him behind the baton when it came to replicating the unique arrangements and instrumentations that made the select decade of music as legendary as it was but he and his trusted band seized the opportunity and recreated multiple hits of yesteryear so effectively, you would think that you were listening to the original recordings. Not only that, but Moody’s quality and quintessential music direction also allowed his vocalists to explore the techniques used by the original artists to inform their performances while still letting them utilise their own sound and this was most prominent, in the solo numbers and the two, three or four part harmonies of the age’s vocal groups. In the choreography department, Hess shared the work with featured ensemble member Joanna Christou and together they staged both throwback routines fit for Broadway in the artists’ performance numbers and simple but powerful moments in numbers involving songwriting or recording sessions that could raise up everyone in the stands. With choreography reminiscent of shows like Jersey Boys, Dreamgirls and some elements of Once and Six, Hess and Christou’s dance style blended right in to the narrative in a turn that was shiny and showstopping. 

Throughout Beautiful’s run time, there were only six people who portrayed one singular role in the overall narrative and they all made every moment of their stage time count but first I would like to highlight the work of the featured roles and ensemble who all played important parts in making the production the spectacular that was presented. From backup singers to groups like The Shirelles, The Drifters and The Righteous Brothers to influential people in and out of the business who left an imprint on the lives of the leads’ real life counterparts, they all turned every scene into magic with a touch of their fingertips through pitch perfect harmonies, well informed acting and smooth and structured dance skills that placed the featured cast on pedestals, making them stars of the story in their own right. With his portrayal of Carole King’s first husband and original songwriting partner Gerry Goffin, Drew Collet tackled the role with such crafty confidence and charisma as he focused on the pros and cons of Goffin’s charm. The audience got to feel sympathy for Collet’s character from the immense anxiety and pressure he felt keeping up appearances by living the suburban dream, absolute disgust and disdain for him with his ultimate adulterous betrayal in he and King’s marriage after many sacrifices and empathy and forgiveness in his final scene when Goffin apologises for his mistreatment. Doing a full 180 performance wise after his acclaimed roles in Fab Nobs’ Tuck Everlasting and Bright Star in the past year, Julian Campobasso showcased his versatility as an actor with his portrayal of the legendary Barry Mann, a genius singer/songwriter who was a flaming hypochondriac, a ladies man turned hopeless romantic and on some occasions, a loveable goof. Rolling all of these elements together in his performance, Campobasso was adorable yet highly ambitious as it propelled the performer to new heights in his craft and opened up new opportunities for his ever growing resume and the chemistry he had with Cynthia Weil was truly magnetic, but more on her performance later. 

In Beautiful, Carole King had two parental figures, her real life mother Genie Klein and her boss and music publisher Don Kirshner who were portrayed in the show by Robyn Parker and Phil Lambert respectively and despite not having any song to sing in the musical, they’re acting chops made up for it and gave a lot of personality to the final product. In her warm, witty and sometimes wacky performance, Parker infused a sense of relatability as a woman who hates men with a burning passion after her ex-husband’s extramarital affair but also a sense of compassion when she puts said hatred aside to comfort her daughter when it happens to her and supports her career as soon as it takes off. On a personal note, Parker had been cast as Genie before in a production that fell through and it was fantastic to see her finally play the role three years on, suiting it just as well as she did back then. Lambert’s performance of a publisher who nurtured the career of not only Carole King, but Goffin, Mann and Weil as well stood out as one of the production’s most loveable and loyal as his take on the father figure had the audience wanting him to be their father/mentor too, looking up to him every step of the musical journey and making his farewell to Carole near the production’s end all the more heartbreaking. 

Instead of a king and queen, Altona’s newest production had two queens, both of whom embodied their roles heart, body and soul and they were unsurprisingly Lauren Holcombe in the titular role of Carole King and Amelia June in the role of the recently passed songwriter and equal legend Cynthia Weil. Like Cinderella and her glass slipper, Holcombe and her character were the perfect fit as she convincingly let every emotion in the book pour out of her with every lyric, worked hard to develop King’s native New York accent and overall, made the role her very own as if it was tailor made specifically for her. Unbeatable, unbiased and upbeat, Holcombe’s performance could give King’s original Broadway performer Jessie Mueller a run for her money and definitely has the potential to ride the success of her performance all the way to this year’s awards season, where she could easily receive a nomination for best actress. Meanwhile, June gave a bright, beaming and bouncy performance that explored Cynthia Weil’s broadway inspiration in her songwriting, her hesitance to settle down with the love of her life Barry Mann even with the chemicals constantly reacting between her and on stage partner Campobasso and her eagerness to get a song of hers to number one on the charts in a playfully competitive fashion. June’s portrayal was truly a noble one as it honoured Cynthia’s memory while paying tribute to the legacy she left behind in the music industry and I know that she would be smiling down on June proud of how she was represented in the production. 

In conclusion, it took a long time for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical to see the light of day in Melbourne’s amateur circuit but Altona’s adaptation of the story ensured the theatre going public that the stars had aligned for it to finally grace the stage. The production thanked our community for its patience and did well at promoting messages of recognition, inclusivity, representation and how everything old can be new again when the effort is put into it and I look forward to witnessing what new marvels Altona can bring to our community in their next season. Special shoutout to Robyn Parker, Joanna Christou and James Belsey for their work on the production and to the rest of the cast and crew associated with Beautiful for an influential start to their season. If you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, make sure you snag some up for their final performance weekend, support the company, support the production’s massage and support local theatre. Congratulations Altona on a fantastic season so far, we’ll still love you tomorrow, don’t lose that loving feeling and stay, well, beautiful.

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Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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