Reviewer: Adam Rafferty
Ever since the musical adaptation of beloved Australian movie Muriel’s Wedding opened to rave reviews as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2017 season, musical theatre lovers in Melbourne who couldn’t make it to Sydney (or get a ticket) have been itching to see a local staging. Well, now it seems that the lengthy delay has been more than worth the wait, as script, score and lyric revisions have added even further polish to an already sparkling confection and has aligned the detail of the story closer to its film origins with greater focus and clarity. This version of Muriel’s Wedding is an absolute must-see for any self-respecting music theatre fan.
Directed by Australia’s foremost music theatre director Simon Phillips, with a book penned by the movie’s original writer and director, PJ Hogan, and a score by the enormously talented Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttal incorporating no less than six ABBA songs, it’s no wonder that this production is excellent in every way, and thoroughly Australian to boot.
While the script has seen loads of additions and revisions to make the story and Muriel’s motivations clearer, one piece of genius in the stage adaptation hasn’t changed. That is Hogan’s decision to bring the story into the current day and to make social media a key component of both Muriel’s humiliation and rise to fame. Even her job in Sydney (which was working in a video store in the film) has connections to the ‘cult of selfie’. It’s completely up-to-date and contemporary (yet tacky) in every way.
Starting its story in the technicolour sunshine of Gold Coast archetype, Porpoise Spit, from the outset this production, just like its source material, doesn’t hold back from making use of classic Aussie idioms and taking the mickey out of them at the same time. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall have worked out quickly the importance of catchy, first-listen memorability in both their lyrics and melodies. The entire score is full of instantly hummable tunes and/or decidedly lyrical numbers that drive the narrative forward, while interweaving with ABBA’s songs seamlessly.
The backyard bogans of Tania and Chook’s wedding are just as wonderfully crass as you could hope and there’s no holding back on their belittling of our eponymous heroine. When the wonderful Maggie McKenna was cast as Muriel in the original season, she had the spectre of Toni Collette to live up to, but she was so great in the role, it was likewise hard to believe her shoes could be adequately refilled. But grinning madly as she grips the bouquet just tossed by Tania, and filling Her Majesty’s Theatre with a gloriously powerful voice coloured by a delightful trill and almost country-style twang comes astounding newcomer Natalie Abbott, leaving all fears quickly out of sight. Abbot is Muriel in every way you could hope, landing all her comic moments perfectly, and making the pathological liar and opportunist a lovable character that teaches the lessons of self-confidence, independence, love and friendship as she learns them herself.
As her “true friend” Rhonda, Stefanie Jones is likewise perfectly cast. Ballsy, tough yet vulnerable and immediately lovable as she stands up to Tania and her cronies. Jones balances Rhonda’s strength with a warmth that makes her protectiveness of Muriel feel thoroughly genuine and her vocals feel beautifully Aussie.
Christie Whelan-Browne was spot on casting as the bitchy Tania Degano when she played the role (made famous by Sophie Lee) in Sydney, so it’s a delight that she has returned for this tour. It’s unmistakable just how much fun Whelan-Browne is having with all of Tania’s hair flicks, selfies, catty insults and rap throw-downs. Along with her crew of nasty gal pals, Nicole, Cheryl and Janine (Rachel Cole, Catty Hamilton and Imogen Moore) Whelan Browne delivers some of the best moments in the show. From kicking Muriel out of their group, to getting burned by Rhonda’s truth bomb and becoming social media devotees of ‘Mariel’ and her concocted marriage, this pack of bitches brings so much fun to the stage it should be illegal.
As Bill Heslop, Muriel’s unencouraging and politically ambitious father, David James is the kind of ‘ugly’ Australian pollie we all recognise too well. Disappointed in, and unfaithful to his wife and family, James is as gruff and sweaty, sleazy and conniving as you could hope.
As his timid, selfless wife Betty, Pippa Grandison is heart-breakingly good. Betty is the soul of Muriel’s Wedding and her sacrifice is the driving force behind Muriel learning what’s truly important in life. The way the creative team have integrated ABBA’s ‘SOS’ into her storyline is so wonderfully poetic and tragically beautiful that it’s a complete highlight of the production that Grandison delivers with elegance and heartrending emotion.
The decision to make the members of ABBA – Anni-Frid (Laura Bunting), Agnetha (Jaime Hadwen), Benny (Evan Lever) and Björn (Maxwell Simon) – dream-like characters within the story is a masterstroke from the creative team. Like a Greek chorus, they comment on what’s happening through their music and encourage Muriel through her exploits. While at moments the girls prove just how astounding, and difficult to replicate, ABBA’s vocals can be, together the group as a fantasy version of the band are thoroughly endearing.
The entire cast are consistently good and there are so many outstanding performances: the charmingly goofy Jarrod Griffiths as Muriel’s parking inspector love interest, Brice Nobes; the Adonis-like Stephen Madsen as the ‘so not gay’ Russian swimmer and Muriel’s husband-to-be Alexander Shkuratov; the gloriously comic soprano Chelsea Plumley as home-wrecker Deidre Chambers; and the shameless Dave Eastgate as budgie-smuggling swim trainer Ken Blundell, amongst various other ‘exposing’ characters. The Heslop siblings Perry, Malcolm and Joanie are given wonderfully bogan portrayals by Jacob Warner, Caleb Vines and Manon Gunderson-Briggs, with the latter getting cheers for the film’s ‘terribly’ well known catchphrase. The moment this trio join Muriel in their mother’s eulogy is a spine-tingling highlight of the production.
Furthermore, this production looks amazing. Gabriela Tylesova’s spectacularly vibrant and colourful set and costume designs pop off the stage. Sets move swiftly and change craftily through a stage-revolve plus side and fly panels that close around scenes like a camera aperture, both concealing changes and drawing focus in the style of a film.
Choreography by Andrew Halsworth is often quite lyrically literal, from swimmers warming up, to Chinese waiters step climbing and city workers screwing their necks in, it’s bundles of fun to watch.
Simon Phillips did a wonderful job bringing Muriel’s Wedding to the stage the first time around, so it’s quite astounding to discover he has improved upon that high standard of delivery here.
The only real criticism that can be levelled at the production is that, on opening night at least, it ran quite long – coming in at almost three hours in length. Hopefully it gets closer to the stated 2 and half hours during the run. However, with this cast, music and story being so completely loveable, spending more time in their company is a joy. This is the sort of show you’ll want to see again and again. Do not miss it.
Muriel’s Wedding is now playing her Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District. For more information and tickets: https://murielsweddingthemusical.com/