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REVIEW: Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical by P.J. Hogan, Music & Lyrics by Kate-Miller Heidke & Keir Nuttall

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo by Jeff Busby

Muriel Heslop’s life in the Queensland town of Porpoise Spit is one humiliation after another. She didn’t finish high school, she didn’t come out of secretarial school with any marketable skills and the friends she has don’t treat her very well. In the age of social media, nothing she does gets any likes.

To escape from her friends and family, she disappears into her bedroom and listens to ABBA songs and dreams of the perfect white wedding, proof – in her mind – that she has achieved greatness.

Based on the 1994 film by P.J. Hogan, the stage musical version, which premiered in Sydney in 2017, has been reworked a little since its premiere season and has just opened in Melbourne.

I have fond memories of the original film starring Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths in their break-out roles of Muriel and Rhonda. Underneath the joyous ABBA songs and the upbeat ending, though, Muriel’s Wedding is quite a sad film; Muriel may suffer from some kind of depression and her mother, Betty, has been drained of all life by a family who takes her for granted.

Stage musicals of films are a regular occurrence these days, but having a story and structure in place doesn’t necessarily mean the transition to stage is made easier – especially when the music the audience is primed to hear is classic pop tunes by ABBA. All the other songs in show are going to be compared to songs we already know.

Duo Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall bring nearly twenty years of songwriting expertise to this project and prove themselves up to the task. The ABBA songs are in the prime positions we expect from the film, with a couple of additions – including a poignant rendition of SOS – but the songs written for the show all shine.

“Sunshine State of Mind” is a fun introduction to the heteronormative Porpoise Spit, where men are men and women are working toward getting married and procreating. The transition into the story of Tania & Chook’s wedding, with Muriel catching the bouquet, is smooth – candy-coloured sets sliding in and out, large revolves moving the cast around the stage. “The Bouquet” gets us right into Muriel’s head; Natalie Abbott makes her mark right away – she has an amazing vocal range, and I didn’t think of Toni Colette once.

Next we roll through songs from Bill Heslop (“Progress”) and Muriel’s mean-girl friends “Can’t Hang” – the latter a showstopping number led by Christie Whelan-Browne as Tania Delgado. We’re firmly entrenched in a world of social media and hashtags and selfies, which turns out to be a shorthand for selfishness and shallowness. This is the biggest change from the world of the film, giving it a contemporary edge – and later expanding Muriel’s dreams of proving to the world how great she really is.

Overall, the first act is very strong. It covers a lot of real estate from the film, without feeling too jam-packed. Director Simon Phillips has a lot of experience bringing new musicals to the stage and his guiding hand is strong and well-judged.

After borrowing her mother’s credit card, Muriel goes on a cruise where she meets her new best friend, Rhonda – played by Stefanie Jones, who brings a real charm and sparkle to the character’s foul-mouthed bluntness. Muriel and Rhonda’s musical moment in the film is singing ABBA’s “Waterloo”, which is in the show, but highlight for this pair on stage is their duet “Amazing” – played against a starry night; a beautiful piece about misfits knowing they don’t have to fit in.

When Muriel follows Rhonda to Sydney, the emerald city gets its own song, “Sydney” – a city filled with misfits. Soon Muriel meets Brice Nobes, a parking inspector, the lowest form of life in the city, according to the song. Brice falls for Muriel, of course, but she’s not sure – and is quickly distracted by other “Strangely Perfect Strangers” passing by the iconic harbour bridge.

The end of act one “Any Ordinary Night” is a strong finish, changing Rhonda and Muriel’s lives dramatically.

Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Act two is a bit messier, even if somewhat streamlined from its first season. It still has a lot more story to pack in – Muriel meeting the “groom of her dreams” in the body of Alexander Shkuratov, a Russian swimmer who needs to marry to be able to stay in Australia. Stephen Madsen is, uh, built for the role, but also brings some delicious comic timing thoughout the show.

Awkward Brice gets a song of his own “Never Stick Your Neck Out” about how all hopes will be smashed, so no point in dreaming big. It’s a good parallel to Muriel’s story – and allows Jarrod Griffiths to shine, even though the song feels a bit redundant overall.

The ABBA songs are used in surprising ways, often more inventive than in Mamma Mia, the ABBA jukebox musical. The four members of ABBA – Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, Anna-Frid – appear as part of Muriel’s fantasies when she listens to their songs. These characters swing from terrible jokes about Sweden to a kind of dread as they tempt Muriel to disappear into her fantasies.

Muriel’s mother, Betty, is a spectre over the whole show – floating silently along as the family use her for their own needs and never care what she really wants. Her husband, Bill, is having an affair – and even Muriel who could easily become her mother, doesn’t recognise the signs. Betty is played by Pippa Grandison on stage; Grandison was one of the mean-girls in the original film. Her solo moment on stage during “SOS” is the saddest part of the show and an outstanding achievement on all fronts.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design – set, costume & digital projections - are remarkable, bringing a coherent look and feel to the whole show – from the fluorescent colours of Porpoise Spit to the darker shades of Sydney and its nightclubs and alleyways. Even the Harbour Bridge looms over Muriel and doesn’t feel as inviting as it really is.

Andrew Halsworth’s choreography is impressive; his work bringing a real energy to the story and the show – we learn a lot about Muriel’s world from how the large background cast is used. It’s great to see an Australian musical with such a large ensemble that is used so well.

The relationship between Muriel and Rhonda is the emotional centre of the show, throughout its melodramatic ups-and-downs and, like their characters, Natalie Abbott and Stefanie Jones are fucking amazing. Christie Whelan Browne is an excellent villain in Tania Delgado and Pippa Grandison is heartbreaking as Betty.

My, my, Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is an incredible achievement. It’s currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne and will open in Sydney in July.


Christie Whelan Browne leads the mean girls in "Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked"
in Muriel's Wedding: The Musical
Photo: Jeff Busby

Comments

Ray Mooney said…
Good professional review.

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