Well, here it is, a new Australian musical. It’s based on the film Muriel’s Wedding from 1994; an iconic, quirky, favourite of the nation. At its centre is a misfit, Muriel, who embarks on finding a life, an identity, away from the ‘closed’ world of her upbringing in Porpoise Spit, by hook or by crook – and that there is much ‘crook’ embraced by Muriel to follow her ‘dream’ in the schemata of the story, seems, in the eyes of most Australians, in the tradition of the unconditional support of the ‘underdog’, instanced, for example, in the holographic ‘beat-up’ of Ned Kelly, is neither here nor there. It is the survival of the larrikin that wins the hearts of its audience, for she, despite all she does, has a heart, ultimately.
Too, the satiric eye that examines the ‘cruelty’ of the suburbs and the tawdry lives of the Heslop family hits a mark that tells us a truth masked by a ‘fairy tale’ where ‘revenge’ happens – a tit-for-tat series of unkindnesses, and yet still, strangely, inspite of all the ‘criminality’, humanity can triumph. This comic satire is balanced by a grim and often savage critique of an Australian culture.
(Muriel, the film, was written and directed by PJ Hogan and Produced by Jocelyn Moorhouse. One recalls the 2015 film, The Dressmaker, written by Jocelyn Moorhouse and PJ Hogan and we see again the same visionary quirkiness of Australian culture, ruthlessly exposed, by these artists. It might account for the mixed reception to the later film – in time we may all come to ‘understand’ it, for there is, yet again, some contentious meat to ‘swallow’.)
So, striking that balance with a musical version of this film was a tremendous risk, and it was when PJ Hogan was granted the job-wish of adapting his own screenplay to create the book for The Musical, and securing the permission from ABBA to be able to use some of their songs – essential to the success of the film – that the green light to go ahead was given.
Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is a terrific success.
1. The book by PJ Hogan. This being its first outing it is amazingly successful. There are some structural weaknesses, especially in the first half of the first half, but the second act is a wonderful blend of storytelling gliding through the comic and tragic journey with a wonderfully balanced confidence. The integration of the ABBA material is wonderfully done and the extending and altering of the story lines and updating of the period setting to present day does in no way intrude on the memories of the film, it simply gives the audience in the theatre new ownership through closer ‘lived’ recognitions – we all have an iPhone and we all have ‘selfies’!
2. The music and lyrics. Firstly, thank you ABBA. Then secondly, thanks to the brilliance of the Lyrics and the accompanying music by the team, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. The lyrics are clever – not Sondheim BUT, so smart – funny and character apt, with a musical score that is just as character quirky-witty. Enriched with the orchestrations and arrangements by Issac Hayward (additional Music, as well). There is a seamless shift from the famous ABBA to the new score.
3. The set and costume design by Gabriella Tylesova. The Design look of this production and the technical genius in gaining its fluidity for performance is totally remarkable. The glossy primary colours that backdrop the other design features of the work are perfect in their capture of elements of the Australian personality and are exhilarating and subtly uplifting for relaxed ownership by the audience. The Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House just look glorious. Go, amazing Sydney. This work is so, so wonderful.
4. The lighting design by Trent Suidgeest does all it needs to do without pulling focus. It is no small feat.
5. The direction by Simon Phillips is assured and serves fluidly the unfolding of the complications of this very extraordinarily difficult genre of theatre, utilising Ms Tylesova’s Design vision impeccably. Like the Book weaknesses, in time, the few false overstepping into visual-action ‘vulgarities’ can be tempered – perhaps, being not sure of the tone to win an audience some temptations have been given in to – I reckon, not necessary! Trust the writing. The comedy is more razor sharp than pier-end!
6.The choreography by Andrew Hallsworth is bright, crisp and seamless in whisking the work, the songs and music along.
7. The Casting:
Muriel is a crucial part of the jigsaw. A young unknown, Maggie McKenna, has seized the opportunity with focused élan and stamina galore. The singing is strong and the acting grows more confident as the story unfolds. It is in the first half – and it might be in the writing – that doesn’t quite win the audience over. Or, is it that the audience, so enamoured of the original Muriel, has got to learn to accept a new ‘version’ before surrendering – it took a little time to come on board completely (or is it the so-called Target dress in the cocktail scene that looks just a little too good, for us to buy this is our Muriel the Dag?)
Rhonda Epinstall in the hands of Madeline Jones, from the moment she first appears, picks up the show and has us eating out of her hand and ‘buying’ the show without any more hesitations. The acting is spot on and her singing voice is tremendous.
Gary Sweet, as Bill Heslop has a good go at the iconic creation made indelible by Bill Hunter, in the film, and surprises with his singing offers. Justine Clarke playing Mum, Betty Heslop, gives a ‘musical theatre’ performance and is disappointing in not really containing, deeply, the tragic element of the woman. I was surprised (and disappointed). Fortunately, the ‘figure’ drawn by PJ Hogan still hits home with great power.
The rest of the company, and that includes Helen Dallimore who features as Deidre Chambers (What a coincidence) and Ben Bennett, as loyal love interest, Brice Nobes, are startlingly alert and seemed to be very pleased to be part of this production. I noted, Briallen Clarke – who as Joanie Heslop, gets to do: “You’re terrible Muriel”, a number of times, Hilary Cole (who I notice is understudy for Muriel – now, that I would like to see), Jamie Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Aaron Tsindos – the ABBA impersonators, and Christie Whelan Browne – Tania, the narcissist from hell. Boy, does everybody work hard! Watch closely and you will see each and everyone of them re-incarnated from featured actor to chorus, to featured actor and back to another chorus. Backstage must be a ‘riot’ of organisation. Costume and wigs etc ‘flying’ this way and that, I bet. They sure do earn their money. Rehearsing the understudies is going to take some figuring out.
Weaknesses: Not many.
I saw this show with a packed audience of ‘oldies’ at a matinee and they simply loved all of it. They accepted the confession of Alexander Shkuratov, the Olympic swimmer (Stephen Madsen), Muriel’s first husband, “I am the gay” with embracing warmth and laughter. It was only a week since the same-sex marriage result and I got a little teary at the love that was palpable for this figure in the theatre.
There is little not to like in this show and I recommend that you buy a ticket and have a very good time.
Company: Sydney Theatre Company
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre, Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Dates: to 27 January 2018
For more of Kevin Jackson’s theatre reviews, check out his blog at Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Muriel’s Wedding The Musical (Her Majesty’s) – theatre review
- Going Down (STC) – theatre review
- The Wizard of Oz (Capitol) – theatre review
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television