Photos – Lisa Tomasetti
Every so often a show comes along that defies your preconceptions and exceeds your expectations to such an extent that it leaves your head spinning.
There are many who are critical of the accelerating trend since the turn of the millennium for new stage musicals to adapt pre-existing IP rather than seek out original subjects. Many emerge from the ballooning subgenre of the “jukebox musical” that threads a narrative around famous pop songs (such as Rock of Ages or We Will Rock You), while others create original songs for stage adaptations of popular non-musical films (Legally Blonde or Groundhog Day are but two examples).
In either scenario, not dissimilar to Hollywood’s increasing addiction to sequels, remakes, and franchises, the logic behind making stage shows of this nature is obviously that banking on the expensive and risky proposition of getting a new major musical off the ground will be aided by choosing subject matter that has some preexisting “brand recognition”. The hope in doing so, of course, is to secure some degree of a pre-sold audience base. Although one tries not to be snobbish about such endeavours, it is hard sometimes not to heave a cynical sigh at the prospect of yet another film, TV show, or band’s discography being recycled into a singing and dancing spectacle, rather than striving for something altogether new and fresh.
On paper, adapting the 23-year-old Aussie cult classic movie Muriel’s Wedding may seem like a modestly safe bet. A beloved film from an era when Australian screen comedy was continually taking wickets, it is filled with richly quirky, predominantly female characters, and well known for its narratively integrated ABBA soundtrack. It seemed like a good place to start for a musical adaptation, but nothing especially inspired.
How wrong one can be.
As it turns out, Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical is quite an astonishing new show. In a post Mamma Mia! landscape, the prospect of a semi-jukebox musical utilising ABBA songs might have been in dire risk of seeming a very late also-ran, yet as it turns out this production soars with the predominantly new music and lyrics by the quirky opera-trained pop artist Kate Miller-Heidke and partner Keir Nuttall. With many extremely well-orchestrated and catchy songs making excellent use of an ensemble chorus and several interesting and unconventional choices of vocals, it emerges as one of the better new pieces of Australian musical theatre in quite some time.
Particularly effective are the well-handled transitions into the use of the actually quite sparsely distributed ABBA numbers, which have been expertly placed for maximum thematic resonance. Moreover, the concept of Muriel’s use of the band’s songs as a kind of regressive, emotionally insulating salve to her sense of isolated depression, is wonderfully dramatised by sporadically bringing the four band members to life onstage. Complete with their iconic outrageous white costumes, these daydreams conjure Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid as a kind of quadripartite fairy godmother. This not only works to hilarious theatrical effect, but also skillfully integrates these familiar ABBA songs into the story. Miller-Heidke and Nuttall’s new music that comprises the majority of the show never feels second-fiddle to these more iconic tunes, but rather renders them as an almost in-joke novelty.
With original screenwriter and director P.J. Hogan penning this canny updating of his own classic film, the story sticks quite closely to the same story structure while adding some modernisation, which is not only unobtrusive, but highly effective. At first the inclusion of smartphones and some light references to cyber-bullying seem superficial and perhaps a bit tokenistic, yet these come to the fore when the titular marriage plot comes to fruition.
“Success is the best revenge” was one of the taglines used to promote the film back in 1994, and was aptly double-edged. It refers to the seeming culmination of Muriel’s lifelong wish to be lavishly married and fulfill her own deeply internalised ugly duckling-to-swan transformation narrative, and even achieving a degree of fame. In doing so, Muriel feels that she is moreover proving wrong the glamorous popular girls from her parochial hometown who had ostracised and belittled her.
In the musical’s updated context, social media creates the type of mercurial fame and superficial social currency which Muriel achieves, via her sham marriage to an Olympic hopeful Russian (originally South African) swimmer desperate for an Australian citizenship. As a “like”, “share” and “link” accumulating, hashtag-adorned celebrity It-Couple on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, Muriel has an instant-gratification outlet to alleviate her lifetime of insecurities. With a quantifiable basis, however illusory, Muriel believes she can measure herself as having surpassed and re-ingratiated with the bitchy “friends” who once looked down on her. While only one part of the overall narrative of the show, it is an excellent tweak of the story to bring modern relevance to the evergreen subject of social alienation and hollow validation, and the dubious emotional paths it can lead one down.
Indeed, for all its considerable humour, colourful staging and catchy tunes, the story is actually an emotionally turbulent one, and more than a little dark at times. Taking an often unflinching look at the pitfalls of needing, losing, and seeking out self-esteem in all the wrong places, it is a story unafraid to take an adorably gormless yet serially dishonest “awkward girl” protagonist, and follow her through a progression of frankly terrible life choices, ranging from emotionally negligent to legally criminal. In many respects Muriel’s self-centered lack of consideration for any consequences should make her quite a problematically unsympathetic lead character, were it not for our sympathy for her greatly put-upon origins and fundamental kindness of spirit.
Part of any tempered expectations for this musical adaptation may for some stem from having not seen the film since its 1994 release, particularly if one was a teenager at the time. While one might remember the story beats quite well, and this is on that level a close adaptation, the deeper themes of isolation and failure, familial strife, disappointment and personal guilt may very well strike home a great deal more deeply this time around. This is in no small part aided by the added theatricality and direct emotional appeal of setting raw emotions and inner thoughts to music. This may be an ebullient and funny musical that both mocks and celebrates its daggy characters and their ridiculous antics, yet it has quite stinging undercurrents and unsettling themes. While it ends on a note of empowerment and self-determination, it arrives at this point after characters have died, been ruined and permanently crippled. Muriel realises that life has consequences, and while we must learn to live without worrying what others think of us, often we cannot take back the damage our bad choices along the way have wrought.
Simon Phillips directs this extremely talented cast with aplomb, creating an exciting and visually engaging showcase for great songs and superb performances.
Justine Clarke is heartbreaking as Betty, Muriel’s meek doormat of a mother, the ultimate victim of bullying patriarch and dodgy politician Bill Heslop. This is a memorably slimy turn by Gary Sweet, who cuts an altogether more slick and vile characterisation than the film’s late, great Bill Hunter, yet one befitting the more hyperbolic tone of a stage musical. Helen Dallimore is vivacious and hilarious as always as his mistress Deidre Chambers, as is Christie Whelan Browne as the comedically loathsome queen bee of the nasty popular girls. Stephen Madsen brings not only an eye-popping physique but considerable comic timing to the role of Muriel’s husband, the swimmer Alexander Shkuratov.
Madeleine Jones, as Muriel’s long-suffering best friend Rhonda, acquits herself very well in a potentially thankless role as the character who has to not only endure some of the greatest hardship but also must directly articulate the protagonist’s faults to her, yet she does so with charm and dramatic impact.
Yet even with a cast of 28 and many key supporting characters, this is in many respects a star vehicle, or perhaps one should say, a star-making vehicle for Maggie McKenna. Much of the weight of this show rests squarely on the shoulders of this newcomer in, if you can believe it, her professional theatre debut. If that weren’t enough pressure, following the iconic performance of Toni Collette’s own star-making turn in the original film is a tall order. McKenna succeeds spectacularly. It certainly doesn’t hurt that she embodies a better-than-passing resemblance to Collette at a similar age, but moreover she wonderfully manages to channel that same painfully graceless yet endearingly enthusiastic sprit that allows McKenna to make the role her own. It is a part she seems almost born to play, and she sells the believability of Muriel to perfection, in all her insecure, mendacious, giggling, squealing, moping, adventurous, depressive, bridegown-and-ABBA-obsessed, irrepressible glory.
Exciting, uproarious, moving, upsetting, uplifting and profoundly entertaining, Muriel’s Wedding proves to be a stunning new musical which, to borrow the chorus of one of its memorably bogan duets, is fucking amazing.
A Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures production
Muriel’s Wedding – The Musical
book P.J. Hogan | music and lyrics Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall | with songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre | 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 6 November 2017 – 27 January 2018
Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au | 02 9250 1777