In 2000 Billboard Magazine Pop Music researcher Joel Whitburn named Carole King the most successful female songwriter of the 1955-1999 era, writing or co-writing 118 songs that made it into the magazine’s charts (Paul McCartney was the overall winner with 169).

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which sees Esther Hannaford in the title role, tracks the composer’s career from the beginning of her professional relationships with record producer Don Kirshner (Mike McLeish) and collaborator – and very soon to be husband – Gerry Goffin (Josh Piterman), to her 1971 Carnegie Hall concert, which serves as a framing device for the show.

Beautiful, The Carole King MusicalMike McLeish, Josh Piterman, Esther Hannaford, Mat Verevis, Amy Lehpamer in Beautiful. Photos © Joan Marcus

Opposite Hannaford and McLeish are friends and competing song-writing duo Cynthia Weil (Amy Lehpamer) and Barry Mann (Mat Verevis), who provide much of the comic relief – and an excuse to fill out the score with other songs from the era besides King’s.

While the jokes are of the 1990s sit-com variety, they’re delivered impeccably by the cast and Douglas McGrath’s book is snappy enough to keep the audience entertained – there are plenty of in-jokes if you know your 60s pop music – through a first act that feels bloated with hits. (Some judicious cutting could have tightened it up and allowed for the inclusion of King’s Where You Lead, which you could hear the audience gagging for when they heard the melody used in the intro to the second act.)

But just as the show begins to drag, Hannaford delivers a heart-rending performance of One Fine Day that packs a surprising amount of emotional punch, leaving the audience reeling into the interval.

Beautiful, The Carole KingEsther Hannaford as Carole King in Beautiful.

It’s Hannaford who makes this show. She does a thoroughly convincing job of capturing both King’s voice and the kind of down-to-earth humility that contributed to her charm as a performer. Hannaford deftly charts King’s journey from precocious and gawky teenager to confident writer and performer. And she’s got a voice to back it up – performances of It’s Too Late and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman are highlights of the evening.

Josh Piterman swings from charm to self-destructive aggression as Gerry Goffin, delivering some stunning high notes in Pleasant Valley Sunday. Amy Lehpamer is brilliant as a canny and quick-witted Cynthia Weil opposite Mat Verevis who charms as Barry Mann, a kind of hypochondriac, Chandler-from-Friends character. Mike McLeish delivers Don Kirshner’s slick, record exec humour with panache while Anne Wood puts in a comic turn as King’s mother Genie Klein.

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. Alejo Vietti’s costumes are similarly effective and allow for some virtuosic blink-and-you’ll-miss-it changes.

Beautiful, The Carole King MusicalRuva Ngwenya and The Shirelles in Beautiful.

There is plenty of dazzle in the first act. The ensemble does a fine job – even if Josh Prince’s choreography (for the men, particularly) tips from the affectionately humorous to downright silly at times – and Ruva Ngwenya gives a standout performance of Will You Love Me Tomorrow as the lead singer of the The Shirelles. The band under Daniel Edmonds keeps the show bopping along and the sound was consistently well-balanced. But it is the second act in which this show really catches fire.

Ultimately this is a story about Carole King and her journey – everything else is entertaining filler – and it’s in the second act that we see her divorce, move to Los Angeles and find her feet as an artist, recording her breakout album Tapestry. The return to Carnegie Hall and her performance of Beautiful is a dramatic, musical climax that has the audience on its feet.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until December 23.