Photos – Jeff Busby
The early 1990’s heralded something of a renaissance in filmmaking in this country, with the release of three, now iconic, Australian films – Strictly Ballroom (1992), Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994). Each went on to achieve global success, picking up awards and launching the international careers of many of the actors, directors, writers and designers involved.
All three films were regarded as ripe for stage adaptation, with Priscilla – The Musical the first to market in 2006. Opening in Sydney, Priscilla subsequently played Melbourne, London and Broadway before embarking on an international tour, which continues to this day. Before it was made into a film, Strictly Ballroom famously started life as a student theatre production at NIDA, however it took a further 30 years for the mega musical version to hit the Sydney Lyric stage in 2014. It too continues to tour internationally to this day.
But Muriel’s Wedding has taken a bit longer. In his program notes for the new stage production, now playing in Melbourne, writer (and director of the original film) P.J. Hogan explains the timing for the stage adaptation of Muriel’s Wedding was dependent on the availability of rights to the ABBA songs used in the soundtrack. If they wanted ABBA to be a part of the stage version of Muriel’s Wedding (and of course they did), they would have to wait until that ‘other’ ABBA musical – Mamma Mia! – ran its course.
The wait has been well worthwhile, indeed the extra time has been put to very good use – Muriel’s Wedding The Musical is a knockout.
While the stage adaptation of Strictly Ballroom at times felt like a live imitation of the film, Muriel’s Wedding The Musical is a complete reimagining of the story for the theatre. P.J. Hogan’s script brilliantly brings Muriel into the present day, while the original musical numbers (Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall) are used like Shakespearian soliloquies to explore the interior worlds of the characters. Whereas in the film, Muriel is at times frustratingly inarticulate, in this stage version we get to experience the full force of her emotional journey.
Similarly, the significance of ABBA’s music – indeed the whole fantasy world that ABBA has come to represent for Muriel – becomes achingly clear in this production. More than just a soundtrack, ABBA (played by Jaime Hadwen, Laura Bunting, Maxwell Simon and Evan Lever) is an active and vital presence in her life – not to mention an hilarious, and at times poignant theatrical device.
Another very smart evolution of the original story is the prevalence of social media in the world of the play. The film was made in 1994, long before Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were on the scene, and their inclusion in a modern production could easily have been mangled in an attempt to be ‘topical’ or ‘relevant’, but the kind of attention Muriel craves is precisely what social media promises – fame without the need to possess any actual talent. As Hogan notes, “social media allows you to promote your ideal version of yourself, invent a perfect life,” which is exactly what Muriel, along with the mean girls of Porpoise Spit, seek to do.
The original songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall combine smart lyrics and a kind of daggy pop sensibility with occasional operatic flourishes, blending perfectly with the lush sound of ABBA, which weaves and echoes throughout the play.
Newcomer Natalie Abbot, in her professional debut, positively shines as Muriel Heslop, and has the audience in the palm of her hand from the moment she catches the bouquet at the start of the play. She has a lovely singing voice, and traverses the emotional terrain of the character like a true star. Equally strong is Stefanie Jones, who plays the feisty Rhonda with a good deal of sass, providing a nice balance to Abbot’s naiveté. Their duet, A True Friend, was one of the musical highlights for my money.
Christie Whelan Brown as Tania Degano, leader of the mean girls, Dave Eastgate as the swimming coach (and a number of additional roles), Stephen Madsen as Muriel’s (Russian) groom Alexander Shkuratov, and Pippa Grandison as Betty Hislop, Muriel’s long suffering mother, all turn in superb performances, but in truth, director Simon Phillips has presided over a uniformly strong cast, with solid performances from the entire ensemble.
This is an outstanding production on every level, which far exceeds any other musical adaptation of an Australian film we’ve yet seen. Muriel's Wedding The Musical is an extraordinary achievement, which deserves every bit of the success of the film, and then some.
Global Creatures in association with Sydney Theatre Company presents
Muriel's Wedding – The Musical
book P.J. Hogan | music and lyrics Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre | 219 Exhibition St, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 12 Mar – 16 Jun 2019