Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne – until 9 June 2019
It’s Broadway meets Broadbeach, as hotly anticipated Muriel’s Wedding the Musical arrives on the Melbourne stage with a sizzling splash.
Musical stage adaptations of movies have been all the rage ever since The Producers blew away Broadway in 2001. More than just another example of this trend, Muriel’s Wedding proves particularly ripe for the musical theatre treatment, already existing in a fancifully heightened reality of bogan beach bimbos and sundry salacious Sydneysiders.
The test of a stage adaptation is whether it adds anything of value to the original property. This year’s Off-Broadway musical Clueless sat on stage like a damp dishrag, faithfully yet boringly adapted by original movie author Amy Heckerling who was foolishly working alone; audiences may as well have just stayed home and re-watched the actual movie.
As well as expertly judging every opportunity to musicalise the world he created, book writer PJ Hogan’s masterstroke lies in updating the setting to the present day. Looking back, it now seems incredible that the original Muriel existed without the presence of social media. In setting the show in the present, Hogan and the creative team have also made a piece of musical theatre for today with brisk, eye catching scenes, snappy music and contemporary language. No need to double check Oscar Hammerstein II’s libretto for Oklahoma! to be sure that Curly never described Laurie as “fucking amazing”.
Hogan retains the much-loved catchphrases from his 1994 movie, following the original story and characters in the way that they would be imagined today. Much as the movie can often seen as lightweight fare, Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is an unflinching black comedy, pulling no punches in regard to the dark aspects of life that have Muriel reaching for the ABBA tunes or running for the nearest bridal boutique or seeking a groom on match.com. In writing a distinctly Australian musical, Hogan neatly avoids the cultural cringe – no need for the audience to cringe when the characters are all cringing at each other.
The kernel of ABBA songs in the movie is expanded into a healthy sprinkling of their hits throughout the show, sung by cheerfully glossy incarnations of the band itself (played by Laura Bunting, Jaime Hadwen, Evan Lever and Maxwell Simon). This conceit pays off handsomely when Muriel’s fragile mother Betty has her own interaction with the singing Swedes, when her pitiful arc comes to its tragic conclusion.
ABBA’s presence is just a treat-sized portion of the musical, the main serving coming from the dynamic team of Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Easily the very best musical score that Global Creatures has produced, Miller-Heidke and Nuttall’s music is instantly accessible, brimming with witty character details and frequently driving the storytelling apace.
Muriel’s mean girl frenemies rap in “Can’t Hang,” her siblings percussively proclaim their cricket commentary in “Meet the Heslops” and Brice gets manly advice in “Never Stick Your Neck Out.” The show has an opening number for the ages in “Sunshine State of Mind,” and yet another when the focus shifts to “Sydney.” Muriel’s inner voice brings out the songwriters’ sweetest work, from I wish song “The Bouquet” to Muriel’s heartbreaking eulogy “My Mother.”
An expert at guiding new musicals to the stage, director Simon Phillips is in peak form with Muriel’s Wedding. Creative elements are deftly interwoven to form a sophisticated whole. Scenes dissolve with cinematic flow, the eye always drawn to key action. Overlapping scenes, brief snippets of reprised songs, sharply drawn characters and crisp storytelling are all part of the quality on show.
The story moves from sleepy, superficial Porpoise Spit to the excitement and freedom of Sydney. Designer Gabriela Tylesova switches colour palettes from sunny citrus tones for the central coast to quirky costumes in black for Sydney. Likewise, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth creates a distinct dance vocabulary for the two locations. Hallsworth’s work is characteristically breathless, punchy and witty, always appearing as much fun to perform as it is to watch.
Tylesova excels herself in crafting unique costumes that are the external embodiment of the internal character. No two costumes are the same, with a plethora of patterns and prints in use. Following an extended sequence of bridal dresses, Tylesova tops them all for Muriel’s actual wedding dress, an explosion of ruffles and rosettes, which, combined with riotous pink and red bridesmaid dresses, clearly signifies the superficial tastelessness of the affair. At the other extreme, Betty Heslop’s terry toweling tracksuit proclaims pathetic plainness to perfection.
Using dynamic projections, Tylesova adds magical sparkle to ABBA’s fantastical stage appearances. Choice lighting designer Trent Suidgeest supports the lush onslaught of rich colour with myriad lighting cues that contribute mightily to the irresistible appeal of the design.
Newcomer Natalie Abbott is a delightful discovery as Muriel. Performing with unselfconscious abandon, Abbott deftly balances brashness with vulnerability, creating a naive persona without cloying sweetness. Carrying the show on her young shoulders, Abbott makes the role her own, wining an abundance of audience affection along the way.
Also making his professional debut is Jarrod Griffiths, giving a winning performance as Muriel’s utterly adorkable beau, Brice.
Stefanie Jones takes her career to the next level with a breakout performance as Muriel’s true friend, Rhonda. In a show that is already high vitality, Jones lifts the energy even higher when Rhonda arrives on stage. Jones has a thrilling belt, plays pathos without schmaltz, and is not afraid to appear without makeup.
A welcome holdover from the initial 2017 Sydney Theatre Company season, Christie Whelan Browne puts her finely honed comic timing to great use as bitching bridezilla Tania Degano. Fellow original cast member Stephen Madsen proves he is more than the extraordinarily chiseled physique we initially see of Alexander Shkuratov, also exhibiting impressive lungpower, an appealing singing voice and nicely underplayed comic chops.
David James is every bit the sweaty middle-aged businessman as self-centred, self-serving, self-deluded Porpoise Spit mayor Bill Heslop, the perfect character to have his big song as the ring tone of his mobile phone.
Bringing an authentic connection to the movie, where she played mean girl Nicole, Pippa Grandison immerses herself in poor dear Betty’s depressive malaise, readily eschewing the usual flourishes of a leading lady of the musical theatre stage.
Chelsea Plumley’s clarion soprano rings out high and true whenever wanton woman Deidre Chambers “coincidentally” turns up. Chameleonic comic Dave Eastgate reinvents himself as four larger than life characters, scoring ready laughs in each incarnation. Jacob Warner is intensely teenaged as footy-mad youth Perry Heslop.
When not centre stage, the lead players prove good sports for donning disguises and joining the ensemble.
Imaginatively conceived, ingeniously written and lavishly produced Muriel’s Wedding is surely the most impressive original musical ever created in Australia. Brimming with imagination, inspiration and joy, Muriel’s Wedding is compulsory viewing for all lovers of musical theatre.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne until 9 June 2019 before touring to Sydney.
Photos: Jeff Busby