“Delivered with picture book clarity, buoyed by evergreen songs and featuring a winning performance by Esther Hannaford, Beautiful is another piece of feel-good product from the chugging assembly line of jukebox bio-musicals,” wrote Audrey editor Jason Blake in his review for the Sydney Morning Herald after seeing the show’s Australian premiere at the Sydney Lyric in September.
He wasn’t alone in noting the limitations of the jukebox genre, though most critics found themselves won over by writer Doug McGrath’s weaving of Carole King’s biography around a suite of songs spanning the early 1960s to the release of her Tapestry album a decade later.
“Beautiful perfectly marries both key elements of the successful jukebox musical – nostalgia and story – and it does so simply by having narrative integrity and thoughtful shape,” wrote Cassie Tongue in The Guardian. “The structure of the show is nothing radical for the genre: it doesn’t push at the boundaries or challenge the conventions of it – rather, it takes those conventions seriously, treating them as milestones of its protagonist’s journey rather than the sum of it.”
Ben Neutze, writing for The Daily Review, noted “McGrath’s book sticks closely to the efficient storytelling template laid down in Jersey Boys and, although it’s frequently written in broad brushstrokes, it has enough character detail and hits the right marks to be a satisfying emotional journey.”
Simon Parris (Man in Chair) expressed some reservations in his review: “Towards the end of act one momentum flags with a series of songs sung by pop groups,” but got with the program after interval “as the story drives towards King’s eventual performance of her own songs.”
The production rated highly across the board. “Extraordinarily slick and beautiful to look at,” wrote Neutze, who singled out the show’s “balance of technical precision and humanity.”
“Derek McLane’s textural set designs sparkle, taking motifs of 50s and 60s technology and repeating them to create a sense of exciting movement and space while shifting seamlessly to create almost filmic transitions and fades between scenes,” wrote Angus McPherson in his four-star review for Limelight. “Alejo Vietti’s costumes are similarly effective and allow for some virtuosic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it changes.”
Everyone had something good to say about the show’s star Esther Hannaford. “[She] succeeds in every way imaginable,” wrote Neutze. “I can’t think of a performer better suited to this material.” Tongue was moved: “Watching Hannaford’s King claim her own agency and artistry is a subtle but rewarding triumph.” Parris described Hannaford’s performance as “towering”.
We’ll leave the final word to Di Simmonds, at Stage Noise: “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. Her’s is a great performance, both powerhouse and subtle.”