For one shining moment in the 90’s, the Australian Film Industry captured the underdog story with love and humour; we flamenco-ed into the winner’s circle, operatically drove across the desert, took on the High Court to keep our home and journeyed from Porpoise Spit to Sydney in search of a sense of self-worth. The language of these films is now embedded in the Australian lexicon. This is territory beloved and jealously guarded by many Australians, so it is no surprise that PJ Hogan was initially reluctant to turn Muriel’s Wedding into a musical. However, time and Simon Phillips (Director) eroded the doubts and here we are, with a Muriel who articulates through song the struggle of the ordinary to be recognised.
Muriel’s Wedding loses nothing in a contemporary setting and musical format. Muriel herself embraces Instagram and Twitter, finding fame for the talentless as only social media can provide. Maggie McKenna claims Muriel as her own, as does Madeleine Jones with Rhonda. Their performances as the two girls seeking a more adventurous life in Sydney are authentic and charming. How easy it would have been to simply mimic the original players; but McKenna and Jones find their own nuances and moments under the guiding hand of Simon Phillips’ direction and their friendship plays sincerely in numbers such as Girls Like Us and Amazing.
The girls are ably supported by a cast who bring energy and passion to their roles. As the men in Muriel’s life, Ben Bennet’s Brice Nobes is a perfectly balanced foil to her character whilst as her convenient husband Alexander Shkuratov, Stephen Madsen is both entertaining and unnervingly Superman-like. Fleshing out Porpoise Spit, Muriel’s siblings are suitably grubby and self-centred and the mean girls’ squad are like, OMG!, quintessential millennials.
The most intelligent, creative theatrical choice of this production must be the actualisation of Muriel’s fantasy relationship with ABBA. Agnetha (Jaime Hadwen), Anni-Frid (Sheridan Harbridge), Bjorn (Mark Hill as a most uncanny look-alike) and Benny (Aaron Tsindos) populate Muriel’s imagination, bringing her comfort and understanding in her most isolated moments. This ABBA quartet brings not only lovely comedic moments to the show but with Justine Clarke’s Betty Heslop, the most poignant. Clarke’s performance is delicate and moving, a counterpoint to the ecstasy of Muriel’s new life.
As a musical, Muriel’s Wedding has to meet some interesting challenges, not the least is, of course, going up against the hit pop-songs of ABBA. Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall chart Muriel’s journey from her inarticulate yearnings (“Someone is gonna wanna marry me someday, someone is gonna come and sweep me all away”) to her more eloquent eulogy “My Mother”.
On the night I saw the show, many of the cast top notes were pitchy and I kept thinking that the sound desk needed to check their gain controls! Sometimes actors faces were in shadow – so either they weren’t finding their mark or the lighting rig may need a little adjustment. These are easy fixes and no doubt will be done over the next week.
A further challenge in adapting a film for stage is finding a way the present the multiple scenic changes which film allows, but for which stage is much less forgiving. For the most part, these were handled with primary colours, iconic images and a revolve. A comic strip style tracking of flats helped frame small scenes and allowed for the setting up of larger areas of action behind. Unfortunately, these set ups were often a little loud and could be heard above the dialogue and songs presented downstage.
Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical runs for 2 hours and 50 minutes, with interval. At times it feels slightly too long and perhaps, in one or two places, a little crowded. Some judicious editing (perhaps the Progress number?) would tighten this and keep us on track more with Muriel’s progress…
The creators of Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical have bravely gone into a realm few would dare go. Not only have they taken on an iconic, beloved story with embedded cultural references but also they have chosen to create a theatrical experience which is completely about ordinary Australians. The audience seemed to appreciate this, many giving a standing ovation at curtain call. It is very much Australia’s own musical that reaches out to tap us all on the shoulder and remind us of what is truly important in life.
Kate Stratford – Theatre Now & Talking Arts
Book by PJ Hogan
Music & lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall
With songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA
6 Nov 2017 – 22 Jan 2018
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre
Theatre Company: Sydeny Theatre Company
Duration: 3 hours (including interval)