MURIEL'S WEDDING - THE MUSICAL
MURIEL’S WEDDING - THE MUSICAL, Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, 18 November 2017 (to 27 January 2018). Photography by Lisa Tomasetti: above - Porpoise Spit; below - Maggie McKenna and Madeleine Jones; below again - the besties
First things first: the team behind that most dangerous beast “a new Australian musical” has done it: Muriel’s Wedding - the Musical is spectacular and spectacularly good in almost every way that counts. Most of all, it’s Australian and makes no concessions to anyone or anywhere else. And that, of course, makes it universal and irresistible.
As you undoubtedly know by now, Muriel’s Wedding - the Musical is an updated but largely faithful adaptation by PJ Hogan of his 1994 movie. And because faulty popular memory recalls it as being awash with ABBA songs although it wasn’t actually a musical, this one is flooded with original songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall and they are everything one could hope for.
In short, the vital foundations of a successful stage musical are rock solid: book, music and lyrics. And building on those foundations is ace director Simon Phillips, brilliant set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova – with lush lighting design by Trent Suidgeest; dazzling-witty choreography by Andrew Hallsworth and music director Isaac Hayward’s sumptuous orchestrations, arrangements and additional music that fill the tricky auditorium via an excellent sound design by Michael Waters.
And then there’s the company. Once again, you probably know by now that the hunt for “the new Muriel” was exhaustive and international. Just as well because Maggie McKenna was living in Los Angeles when the call went out. She’s a Melbourne gal and had taken the sensible course – for an aspiring musical theatre performer whose mother is Gina Riley – of taking herself elsewhere to train at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy well beyond mama’s giant shadow. McKenna is a chip off the old block though – voice, personality and presence, and that great big smile. However, she’s a new star in her own right who turned 21 during rehearsals and is making her professional stage debut. Wow.
Just as important to the structure is Muriel's best friend Rhonda Epinstall and that’s also a great bit of casting as Madeleine Jones is as experienced as McKenna is not and, among many roles, was heartbreaking in Once (only seen in Melbourne unfortunately). Consequently her performance as the razor-sharp misfit who escapes the small minds of small town Porpoise Spit only to end up in a wheelchair is a light and shade contrast to McKenna.
The wheelchair and the two girls’ relationship are reminders of the dark underpinnings of the seemingly sunny Muriel’s Wedding. In the two-and a bit decades since the movie launched Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths to global stardom, memories of it have been coloured by the clips and photos of the duo doing the talent quest turn as Anni-Frid and Agnetha. Yet there is so much more to the show than ABBA, vital though they are.
Porpoise Spit is a seaside surfie town dominated by white-shoe brigadier and pollie Bill Heslop (Gary Sweet) for whom the slogan “You Can’t Stop Progress” is as rampant as his racism and libido. He is properly awful, which makes it plausible that his perpetually bullied daughter decides she will not end up like her mum, Betty (a distressingly fine Justine Clarke) and nicks off to Sydney to bust his credit card and get a new life.
Just like real life, however, although Muriel leaves Porpoise Spit behind she can’t shake off her own baggage: she’s still plain, plump Muriel Heslop whose quartet of besties – Christie Whelan Browne as the toxic bitch-queen Tania Degano and acolytes Hilary Cole, Manon Gunderson-Briggs and Laura Murphy – can barely wait for her to slurp the remains of her Orgasm to tell her to piss off.
NB: this quartet of hilarious and horrible cocksuckers is a reminder that Muriel’s Wedding has aspects that may not be suitable for those with either a pacemaker or youngish children. For everyone else, it’s a gasp and a laugh a minute, until it turns serious.
And turn serious it does after a raucous and raunchy first half. In the second, the truth of Muriel’s easy abandonment of Rhonda in favour of life as a Kardashian-style selfie princess is all too stark and a logical next step (via David Bergman’s video design). That she believes she is now Someone because she has tens of thousands of “followers” is the 21st century tragedy into which PJ Hogan has neatly dragged the story.
The depths and nuances of the book – and Miller-Heidke/Nuttall songs – are rare in a musical and further highlighted by Helen Dallimore as cosmetics entrepreneur and Bill’s rapacious mistress Deidre Chambers. She is so awful yet so funny it’s painful, and her artlessly ruthless stalking of bumptious Bill – and their lack of concern for Betty – surely have to be more effectively shocking than what is known as ”frequent coarse language and sex scenes”. (None of which involves the obnoxious pair, by the way.)
In Sydney meanwhile, Muriel meets and quickly discards city parking ranger Brice Nobes (Ben Bennett) whose gawky charm and niceness pall in a moment after she is offered cash and status to marry emigre Russian swim star Alexander Shkuratov (Stephen Madsen). The two men bring very different but equally effective sensibilities to their roles: Bennett is all teen idol sincerity and delicious cuteness, while Madsen’s glistening six-pack and steely determination conceal wicked comic timing.
The Heslop siblings: Perry (Michael Whalley), Malcolm (Connor Sweeney) and Joanie (Briallen Clarke) also add to the richness of the ensemble. Their “Meet the Heslops” song of glottal stops, grunts and minimal sentiments is moronically scintillating, as is the way Clarke delivers the much-anticipated “You’re terryble, Muriel” line – almost as tricky as “a handbag?” or “to be or not to be” and she nails it.
Perhaps the cleverest and most successful departure from the movie is the incorporation of ABBA themselves. At moments both inopportune and apposite up pop Agnetha (Jamie Hadwen), Anni-Frid (Sheridan Harbridge), Bjorn (Mark Hill) and Benny (Aaron Tsindos) to be Muriel’s chorus, comfort and conscience and to lead the parade of greatest hits. Their performances are uproarious and their harmonies uncanny.
Much the same can be said of the entire company – of some of the best and brightest musical theatre talents we have (and we have a lot these days). Musically they are electrifying, the dancing and acting are broad, bright and 100% and they all deliver by the truckload. Take a tissue for Muriel and her sibs’ heartfelt but too late paean to their mum, and shudder at the designs for the new Porpoise Spit – including an apartment block in the shape of a half-peeled banana.
Muriel’s Wedding - the Musical has – thank God and the STC’s resources and determination – been workshopped, fine-tuned, honed and polished to the point where it’s a credit to all those involved. It’s not the movie: it is it’s own thing and that thing is wonderful. There’s no need to make excuses, to say “it just needs a few weeks/another rewrite/a bomb under it” – it’s good to go and it goes like a V8 Torana. If you don’t have tickets: you have been warned. You need to say, “I’ve seen it.” Totes recommended.