When it was announced last September that entertainment group Global Creatures would team up with Sydney Theatre Company to bring the hit 1994 Australian film Muriel’s Wedding to the stage, feelings were mixed. As always, the prospect of top creatives joining forces to make a home-grown, full-scale musical was exciting. But on the other hand, would the PJ Hogan-penned story successfully translate into a live offering, satisfying the film’s biggest fans while winning over hard-nosed critics sceptical that such a project could ever result in a high quality work? (Even PJ Hogan admitted at the time the production was announced that he’d been asked many times to put Muriel’s Wedding on stage and had always previously said no).
Under the direction of Simon Phillips (who steered Australia’s most famous bus onto stage back in 2006) and with a book by Hogan himself, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical has just opened at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre. And the good news is that any initial concerns were unfounded. In 2017, Muriel’s Wedding on stage is immensely entertaining, wonderfully comedic, genuinely moving, and an excellent testament to the high standard of music theatre Australian creatives and performers can make when given the opportunity to do so.
In its new guise, Muriel’s Wedding is still the story of Muriel Heslop (Maggie McKenna), a socially awkward and immature school leaver, who abandons her uneventful life in the fictional coastal town of Porpoise Spit and moves to Sydney with friend Rhonda (Madeleine Jones) in pursuit of a better life. More than that, though, Muriel craves a complete transformation of herself and has resolved that this will occur if she finds a man to marry. But ultimately she learns life lessons about what constitutes happiness and success.
Hogan’s book is fiercely faithful to the film, but some well-conceived enhancements have helped anchor the show’s weightier themes more successfully in the foreground. For starters, rather than reflecting the time it was made, the story is set in current times. That allows for the introduction of social media use into the plot, those references appropriately suggesting the contemporary convention of creating a picture perfect life online.
Another integral enhancement to the film’s script is a greater focus on Betty Heslop (Justine Clarke). Just as in the film, she’s utterly downtrodden and subservient to her husband, Bill (Gary Sweet), and fails to receive any real respect from Muriel and her other children (Briallen Clarke, Connor Sweeney and Michael Whalley). But on stage, we’re afforded an insight into how Betty herself sees her own life. Coupled with a funeral scene, it’s a heartbreaking sequence but it beautifully articulates those attributes and actions in a person’s life that make them meaningful contributors. Sincerely, it’s a moment in the show likely to evoke a strong emotional response from many.
Of course, staying true to the film means ensuring the audience has its fair share of laughs, and Hogan’s book well and truly delivers. The moments that made us laugh on film are all there, and Muriel’s ‘instant husband’, now a Russian swimmer named Alexander Shkuratov (Stephen Madsen), makes his own valuable contribution.
On top of Hogan’s terrific book is an impressive pop score by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Their original tracks appear alongside ABBA classics featured in the film (including ‘Dancing Queen’ and ‘Waterloo’). Mixing new music with these much-loved classics is a tricky proposition, but Miller-Heidke and Nuttall have composed dynamic theatrical pop cuts that are hummable, highly melodic pieces with well crafted lyrics that underscore the narrative wonderfully and sit nicely next to ABBA. The music is performed by a tight nine-piece orchestra led by musical director, Isaac Hayward.
Overseeing proceedings, Phillips’ strong direction ensures a good pace is maintained and that scenes don’t overstay their welcome. There’s very little that stands out for trimming here. Phillips’ care in respecting the integrity of the film is also patently clear and he’s ensured this is a piece with tremendous heart.
The entire cast is of the highest calibre. Their energy and commitment never wavers throughout. Leading the cast – and making a stunning debut on the professional stage – is McKenna, taking on the role made famous by Toni Collette. Make no mistake, she’s a bona fide star, and her Muriel Heslop is everything a fan of the film would want her to be. She’s socially stunted, highly insecure, quirky, daggy, and acutely self-conscious. On top of that, her Muriel is hugely congenial; you want to see her (truly) succeed. And while her acting talents are enviable, her vocals are also spectacular and her stamina remarkable, as she barely leaves the stage over the course of the evening.
As Rhonda, Jones is also perfectly cast. Another top drawer performer, she brings just the right amount of rebelliousness to her portrayal of Muriel’s best friend, and presents a character with smarts and integrity. There’s a strong, believable chemistry between Jones and McKenna.
Also pivotal is Justine Clarke, whose performance as the browbeaten Mrs Heslop is characterised by deep pathos. Sweet is the right fit for her irredeemable husband, making him every bit as repugnant as he was on film. The mean girl quartet (that later becomes a trio) made up of Christie Whelan Browne (as Tania Degano), Laura Murphy (as Janine Nuttall), Hilary Cole (as Nicole Stumpf) and Manon Gunderson-Briggs (as Cheryl Moochmore) – all first-class performers – is fantastic. Each has the opportunity to make good use of her sizeable comedic talents and vocal prowess. Meanwhile, Whalley’s Perry Heslop is suitably objectionable, Helen Dallimore is an asset as cosmetics salesperson and mistress Deidre Chambers, and Ben Bennett brings great likability to his portrayal of Brice Nobes, the parking inspector Muriel encounters, whose insecurity and low self-esteem mirror her own.
While on film, ABBA’s presence was restricted to their music, on stage the foursome is brought to life, forming part of the dream world to which Muriel regularly retreats. Jaime Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill and Aaron Tsindos are all stellar as the Swedish superstars.
Set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova brings Porpoise Spit, Sydney and the colourful band of characters to life in a vibrant, animated world, and that cartoonish quality fits the story and its players like a glove. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design further heightens that look and feel.
In short, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical is a triumph; it’s a stage adaptation of the widely-loved film that takes the well-known story to new heights with an infectious score and a book that handles its central themes in such a manner that their ultimate impact is more powerful than on screen. On stage in 2017, Muriel is far from terrible.
MURIEL’S WEDDING THE MUSICAL – SEASON DETAILS
Playing now until 27 January 2018
Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay
Tickets on sale at www.sydneytheatre.com.au or by phone on (02) 9250 1777