Australia’s cultural cringe may well be at its greatest when it comes to our musical theatre. We certainly don’t have a strong history of championing and developing our own unique voices and talents, and our yardstick for measuring the quality of our work has always been international success.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is a big, boldly joyous “screw you” to that notion of success. The producers behind the show may have the ambition to turn it into an international property, but the creative team have clearly focused all of their energies into crafting a show that embraces and speaks directly to an Australian musical theatre audience.
And for that oft-neglected audience, it feels like we’ve finally been seen, heard and validated. If Australian musical theatre audiences are Muriel, then this show is our very own Rhonda, putting its arm around us and declaring to Broadway and the West End: “I’m not alone, I’m with Muriel”.
Writer and director PJ Hogan’s original 1994 film remains one of the true gems of Australian cinema: big-hearted, big-thinking, broadly funny, and deeply moving. The stage version, adapted by Hogan himself, retains all of those qualities and finds a gorgeous musical language thanks to composers Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall.
The show is blessed with an ensemble of some of Australian theatre’s best and brightest
The musical has some significant updates — it’s set today, so Muriel becomes instafamous — but sticks largely to the narrative of the film: Muriel (Maggie McKenna) is a relentlessly abused, ABBA-loving misfit who steals money from her parents to escape her sleepy, small-minded coastal existence. She finds her first real friend in wild child Rhonda (Madeleine Jones), who brings Muriel out of her shell by simply showing her love and compassion. But when an unexpected disaster hits, their friendship becomes strained, and Muriel becomes lost in her lifelong dream of becoming a beautiful, adored bride.
Hogan and director Simon Phillips have made this story work superbly on stage, from their thoughtful inclusion of ABBA as Muriel’s unlikely guardians, to the several tragedies of the second act, to their handling of all the iconic lines (actor Briallen Clarke gets “you’re terrible, Muriel”, and finds a great and subtle way of dealing with audience expectations).
Anybody familiar with multi-talented Miller-Heidke’s pop music output (mostly all written with her husband and collaborator Nuttall) won’t be surprised to learn that hers is the perfect musical voice for this material: immediately accessible, infectious, witty Australian pop with a significant dose of irony.
Miller-Heidke and Nuttall are equally at home writing intimate, conversational numbers for their characters (their compositions for Muriel and Rhonda are, to borrow a phrase, fucking amazing) as the big ensemble numbers.
The show opens with a song that establishes Muriel’s hometown of Porpoise Spit as a cartoony, disturbingly homogenous world where “everything’s perfect” and the “men are men” and the women are women. It’s a bright and fun opening, but when Muriel moves to Sydney, a corresponding number practically explodes across the stage, establishing Australia’s biggest city through Muriel’s eyes: a place where “nobody’s perfect” and “you get to be what you wanna be, do what you wanna do, say what you wanna say, screw who you wanna screw”.
It’s a version of Sydney that’s sort of real and sort of not. But if you’re a misfit who moved to the big smoke from a small and small-minded part of this country, you’ll want to live in the celebration and liberation of this song forever.
Maggie McKenna makes her musical theatre debut as Muriel, and carries that massive load with ease and integrity
In the second act, the rose-tinted version of Sydney is undercut by a dry, almost sardonic song, Never Stick Your Neck Out (in which choreographer Andrew Hallsworth finds a great theatricality in the mundanity of everyday work).
The show is blessed with an ensemble of some of Australian theatre’s best and brightest, embodying every character and community Muriel encounters along the way. They’re absolutely indispensable to the show’s success; this is very much a story of how an individual relates to a community as Muriel transforms from misfit, to part of the crowd, to exceptional “somebody”.
Maggie McKenna makes her musical theatre debut as Muriel, and carries that massive load with ease and integrity. She’s endearingly goofy, a great comic talent (her mother is Kath and Kim creator and star Gina Riley, so comedy is surely in her blood) and a strong and distinctive singer. The musical form allows for an even clearer tracing of Muriel’s evolution, and McKenna makes the most of every dramatic opportunity she’s given, including the wonderful, heart-wrenching second act number My Mother.
As Muriel’s BFF Rhonda, Madeleine Jones is absolutely stunning. She is an extraordinary life force, and you can see why Muriel falls head over heels for this woman with her own distinct style of black mesh and pink locks (the looks for Rhonda are probably the highlight of Gabriela Tylesova’s designs).
Christie Whelan Browne puts her comedic skills to excellent use as the queen bitch Tania, and has a scathingly hilarious first-act song with her bridesmaids from hell (Hilary Cole, Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Laura Murphy) telling Muriel she can’t hang with them anymore.
Helen Dallimore is wonderfully funny as Deidre Chambers, and Gary Sweet is decent enough as Muriel’s politician father, Bill. Ben Bennett is sweet and awkwardly charming as Muriel’s love interest Brice, and Stephen Madsen wins laughs and swoons as the swimmer Alexander Shkuratov.
Justine Clarke has one of the most difficult tasks: to make the very small, timid figure of Muriel’s mother Betty work on stage. After a somewhat shaky first act, she succeeds entirely, inviting the audience to lean in and listen to this unheard woman’s voice.
Every bit as funny, affirming and emotionally impactful as the film.
There are clearly some kinks to iron out — a decent first-act number for Bill “You Can’t Stop Progress” Heslop holds the core narrative up a little and should probably get the chop — but few musicals turn out perfectly on their first public showing.
If we are to consider this an out-of-town tryout (and there’s no tour booked in immediately after this initial season, so the show does have time to develop a little more before another season) it’s an extraordinary success.
Even with those quibbles, there’s so much that this musical gets right: it’s every bit as funny, affirming and emotionally impactful as the film, and manages to extend that wonderful world rather than diminish it.
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