Theatre

While the cast of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical fails to deliver an uplifting experience, Bernadette Robinson, in her solo performance of The Show Goes On, is transcendent as she channels the great women of song. By Peter Craven.

‘Beautiful: The Carole King Musical’ and ‘The Show Goes On’

The cast of ‘Beautiful’ (above), with Esther Hannaford seated at centre.
Credit: BEN SYMONS

It’s an odd thing to see two such contrasted pieces of musical theatre within a few days of each other. Bernadette Robinson is a singer-actress of middle years who channels at a level of clairvoyance some of the great female singers of the mid 20th century in her solo piece The Show Goes On. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is a jukebox show that rehearses and celebrates the noted singer-songwriter of the ’70s and beyond.

Beautiful traces King’s beginnings in New York, her time writing material for other people, with a songwriting partner who was less flash at marriage, and then her eventual transference to California and her regnancy as a diva who could pack Carnegie Hall. The Carole King depicted in the musical is a decent, even-tempered unpretentious woman but this affable chronicle of her career is performed only adequately, with Esther Hannaford, whom we saw in King Kong, giving a lacklustre performance as King. Only Lucy Maunder as her fellow songwriter Cynthia Weil, and to a lesser extent Maunder’s comrade-in-arms Mat Verevis, exhibit the crackling charisma this sort of show needs if it is not to limp.

Robinson, on the other hand, has a dazzling talent and her one-woman show imagining the songs of everyone from Judy Garland to Callas, with quotations in the voices of the divas, shows just what a miracle of a talent she has.

It’s as if Robinson inhabits the psyches of her divas. There is no other way of describing the effortlessness with which she will jump from the (very particular) Welsh raciness of Shirley Bassey’s Tiger Bay self-revelations to the girlish American patter and patois of that torn star Judy Garland.

The remarkable thing about Robinson is that, yes, she can mimic the speaking as well as the singing voices of Patsy Cline and Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Edith Piaf, but she manages to marshal a dynamised dramatic energy that is way beyond the mechanics of resemblance, even though Robinson’s mastery of that is a station on her way. The difference is a bit like the difference between Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan imitating Roger Moore or Michael Caine – something they can do with competitive elan, topping each other in degrees of verisimilitude – and, let’s go to the very top of the tree, Anthony Hopkins doing Richard Burton (bearing in mind that Hopkins said as a young man he imitated Burton endlessly, so that, one can safely say, the Burton manner became the very idiom in which the soul of acting was made manifest). The upshot is that if you compare Burton doing Under Milk Wood in the original 1954 BBC broadcast with Hopkins’ 1988 First Voice, Burton is stonier but Hopkins has mastered a densely musical effect that is both homage to Burton and a tracing of a distance that has been intricately examined.

And so it is with Robinson. You only have to hear three words of her uttering what Julie Andrews said in interview to know this was the voice of Mary Poppins and Maria and Eliza Doolittle writ posh, but the effect of the performance – the fact that this Andrews comes from the mouth of someone who is just as at home with the speaking and singing voices of Cline or Streisand – gives every instance of this deployment of imitation the grandeur of a panoramic effect.

It’s a little like the brightest level of spoken word/audiobook recording: when the great Irish actress Siobhán McKenna did the voices of James Joyce’s two washerwomen in her reading of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake, or when Irene Worth captures the exact tonality, ravaged and forbearing, of Vronsky talking to Anna Karenina, or when Miriam Margolyes trawls the world of voices to get a piping little Oliver and a deadly tenor of wheedling wickedness as Fagin, or when Martin Jarvis seems to resurrect the very ghost of Edith Evans in his performance of a complete David Copperfield, in which great worlds open up like dry flowers in water.

The locus classicus of this is the old Caedmon recording of the Christmas dinner scene from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Cyril Cusack, which is a greater thing than any imaginable full cast performance could be because of the vibrancy of the individual voices and the coordination between them. It is greater in the way a great pianist’s performance might seem to excel a great orchestra under a great conductor doing the “same” piece.

Robinson is a dumbfoundingly great musical theatre performer and as we watch her, our jaws dropping, we can’t see how she does it. This is an art of singing and acting – and of singing as acting – which in Hamlet’s phrase outweighs “a whole theatre of others”.

It’s bizarre that this seasoned and expert performer is not universally acknowledged as a national treasure, but it’s heartening that Barry Humphries and Geoffrey Rush realise what worlds of riches she unfolds and one can only hope her stint in London in the next few weeks allows her the recognition she has deserved for years.

Of the shows Robinson has done, the first one, Songs for Nobodies (2010), which she is now to do in London, is probably the best exhibition of her talent because the Joanna Murray-Smith monologues written for the show – focused on dressers or assistants – were sharp and grew in gravity. That show at the Fairfax Studio of the Melbourne Arts Centre was flawlessly directed by Simon Phillips and perhaps showed the influence of his assistant director Gary Abrahams with its low spots, its intense concentration and its use of something like that candlelight effect of theatre as a seance rather than a circus that we get in the work of the notable Canadian director Des McAnuff.

Pennsylvania Avenue (2016) was a grand one-hander directed by Phillips in his most gesticulatory style and it showed the magnitude of Robinson’s talent. She was wholly credible as a lady who organised the entertainment at the White House. But the way in which the script roamed to encompass presidents and the music mustered so many epiphanic fragments and was such a fanfare to a common woman exhibiting the bright cavalcade of the music of the decades meant it didn’t have quite the same concentration as the first show.

The Show Goes On might have benefited from tighter direction and a more fully dramatic selection of quotes, though it is churlish to say so because Robinson’s talent, artistry and her very deliberate use of them are so grand.

In Beautiful there’s plenty of talent around but most of it is exhibited in a way that is either mousy or cheesy, and the upshot is a big Broadway import that is about as underwhelming as something that aims at nothing more than to please could be. Carole King is an admirable and likeable artist and the best of her songs – “You’ve Got a Friend”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and the rest of them – are golden oldies from a period, the ’70s, when large numbers of women had consolidated the gains of feminism. And the upshot in King’s work is a sophisticated and warm-hearted refraction of all that, which remains what it always was: a moving, relaxed, deeply felt homage to a generation of women who forged an integrity and a freedom that could seem new but which was deeply compatible with an ongoing sense of the power and grace of womanliness.

King wrote some terrific songs and recorded them with great poise and style. Is it permissible to say of her – speaking as someone who represented the broader reach of her first audience once she became an independent singer-songwriter – that nothing in her repertoire has the stabbing magnificence, the rawness and the artistry of Janis Joplin, say, singing “Piece of My Heart” or “Me and Bobby McGee” or “Summertime”. Joplin, of course, in some of her greatest work was singing songs by everyone from Gershwin to Kris Kristofferson, but she represented something about the ’60s that was indelibly distinctive and defiant.

In a different way – wry, tristful and with angular lyrical grace – so did Joni Mitchell who, unlike Joplin, did not flare and go out like a flame. King was always a bit like the warmth and pain, the balance of refinement and convention and originality we got in Simon and Garfunkel.

None of which is fair or can bear too much emphasis. It’s also the case – and more to the point – that this new jukebox musical about her, while not My Fair Lady or West Side Story, while not ruling the world with its originality, might have achieved the irresistibility of Jersey Boys, which Des McAnuff gave a lot of viability and vitamin to in the production we saw here in 2009.

You had the disorienting feeling watching the first night of Beautiful, directed here by Marc Bruni, who also did it in New York, that something had gone wrong with the casting and too little has been done to assist talented people in what is supposed to be a natural-born winner of a show. Esther Hannaford as King is drab where she should shine and impress. She sings well enough but without that lift that is the one justification for engaging with a singer-songwriter in this way.

Nor does it help that Josh Piterman as the collaborator/husband is ordinary in the football sense of the word, far too much of a cartoon stereotype, and even Mike McLeish, a performer of the very first rank in Keating! The Musical, is conventional and cardboard here as the guy who first gives King a break.

Mat Verevis has a bit of life as one half of another songwriting team. He’s at least credible and human and funny. But only Lucy Maunder as his squeeze and collaborator gives a performance to the manner born. She is superb, hitting precisely the right note through all the broad comedy and with a flawless sense of style and a fine sense of real feeling.

Maunder is the one person on stage who makes you think Australians can do this thing as well as anyone, and if Beautiful is to be enjoyed as anything but a soft option, it’s because of her spark and fire and drop-dead zest.

Otherwise, if you want consummate musical acting and an ability to capture a universe of moods and shadows through the human voice as speech and song, go and see Robinson at earliest opportunity.

Arts Diary

CULTURE Adelaide Festival 2018

Venues throughout Adelaide, until March 18

THEATRE I Am a Lake

Theatre Royal, Hobart, March 16-17

DANCE Keir Choreographic Award

Carriageworks, Sydney, March 15-17

BALLET Murphy

Arts Centre, Melbourne, March 16-26

Sydney Opera House, April 6-23

LITERATURE Melbourne Art Book Fair

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, March 16-18

VISUAL ART After Lottie Consalvo: Before I Forget

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until June 17

CULTURE Arts Open: Meet the Makers

Studios around Castlemaine, Victoria, until March 18

THEATRE Colder

Red Stitch Theatre, Melbourne, March 13 – April 8

Last chance

SCULPTURE Louise Paramor: Palace of the Republic

NGV Australia, Melbourne, until March 12

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Inhabiting the stars". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.

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