Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical had a hugely successful world premiere in Sydney in 2017. A co-production between Global Creatures (the Australian live entertainment group now about to open Moulin Rouge on Broadway) and Sydney Theatre Company, the musical opened at the Roslyn Packer Theatre and was immediately a hit with audiences and critics alike. The production went on to win seven Sydney Theatre Awards, five Helpmann Awards, an Awgie Award, the 2018 David Williamson Prize and earned an ARIA Award nomination for its cast recording.
Almost 18 months after its original sold-out engagement ended, Muriel Heslop and fellow residents of Porpoise Spit have returned to the city where it all began for a limited 10-week season. This time around, many of the faces have changed, with Natalie Abbott making her professional debut in the title role and Stefanie Jones playing her best friend, Rhonda.
Based on PJ Hogan’s 1994 classic film, Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical is the story of a socially inept young woman (Abbott) who has a tenuous relationship with the truth, living in a provincial coastal town and looked down on by most of her family and friends. Her father, Bill (David James), is the town’s crooked mayor, trying desperately to mix it with the upper echelons; her mother, Betty (Pippa Grandison) is browbeaten and largely ignored by her family; and her siblings (Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Jacob Warner and Caleb Vines) are couch potatoes.
Muriel escapes her unremarkable life by immersing herself in the music of ABBA. And as it was the first time around, the imaginging of the Swedish superstars as a Greek chorus of sorts (played by Jaime Hadwen, Laura Bunting, Maxwell Simon and Evan Lever) is an entertaining and effective means of giving voice to an inarticulate character. Muriel’s grand plan is to prove she’s “as good as” her friends by getting married. Of course, she ultimately learns that this is a hollow achievement if genuine friendship is sacrificed along the way, when it’s actually the greater prize.
In its return season, Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical remains the best Australian musical to date. Its infectious, well-written pop-infused original tracks, penned by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, meld seamlessly with several of ABBA’s greatest hits. Its book, by Hogan, takes the film’s script to another level with a heightened focus on the downtrodden Betty Heslop and its reflection on the current trend of living – and dying – by social media. And while faithful to the beloved film, it’s all tied together in a slick, pulsating and vibrant piece that keeps its audience entertained from start to finish.
Taking the baton from the astonishing Maggie McKenna is a tough ask for an experienced performer, let alone a newcomer to the professional circuit. But Abbott succeeds in making the role her own, offering us a wonderful portrayal of the naïve, clumsy and discontented Muriel, desperate to be free of her cruel and demeaning father and mean-girl friends. She sings beautifully, adeptly handling Muriel’s most challenging notes and infusing the moving ‘My Mother’, the moment when she finds her voice, with sincere emotion.
Jones is edgy, dynamic and iron-willed as Rhonda and, together with Abbott, creates a powerful duo of leading women. Vocally, she doesn’t miss a beat and her character’s blithe attitude to life is effortlessly and naturally conveyed in her performance.
James’s Bill Heslop has the dominating presence you expect of this unscrupulous egotist and, vocally, he’s in great form, particularly on ‘Progress’, the mayor’s battle cry for urban development. As his wife, Grandison is sympathetic and similarly delivers strong vocals. Chelsea Plumley, meanwhile, plays Deidre Chambers, lending her impressive soprano voice to the shrill beauty consultant.
Laura Murphy earns some of the biggest laughs as Tania Degano, showcasing impeccable comedic timing and voice. Each member of Tania’s crew (Imogen Moore, Catty Hamilton and Rachel Cole) gives great support in her respective role.
Another of the evening’s most memorable performers is Stephen Madsen, reprising the role he played in Muriel’s Wedding’s world premiere season – the ruthlessly competitive and dour Russian swimmer, Alexander Shkuratov. He’s taken things up a notch since that time and it means the po-faced athlete is now one of the show’s most amusing characters.
Gabriela Tylesova’s multifaceted and intricately decorated set, which has a somewhat animated feel, looks terrific on the Sydney Lyric stage, alongside a stunning array of brightly-coloured costumes (there are around 360 in total). Both the set and costumes are highlighted by Trent Suidgeest’s lighting choices, and musical director Daniel Puckey leads an eight-piece band in a solid performance of the score.
When it first arrived on stage in Sydney, Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical was a superbly crafted piece of musical theatre that lovingly revealed the transformation of a young woman and proved its ability to take its audience from laughs to tears – and back again – in a matter of minutes. Its return reminds us of why it earned such universal acclaim in 2017 and gives those who didn’t have the fortune last time the chance to discover its joy. For the rest of us, it’s a welcome trip back to Porpoise Spit.
MURIEL’S WEDDING – THE MUSICAL (SYDNEY SEASON DETAILS)
Dates: Playing now until September 8 2019
Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre
Tickets from www.ticketmaster.com.au
MURIEL’S WEDDING – THE MUSICAL (BRISBANE SEASON DETAILS)
Dates: Playing from September 19 2019
Venue: Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Tickets from www.qpac.com.au