When the musical of Muriel’s Wedding, adapted from PJ Hogan’s hugely popular Australian 1994 film, premiered in Sydney at the end of 2018, Natalie Abbott went along to watch it with friends and was left tingling with emotion at what she’d seen.

Natalie Abbott as Muriel, with cast members. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Like Muriel Heslop, the daggy nobody from the small coastal town of Porpoise Spit, who moves to Sydney with dreams of a better life, Abbott grew up in the NSW town of Bomaderry in Shoalhaven, then moved to Sydney to study musical theatre at The Australian Institute of Music (AIM). She hadn’t seen the film when she saw the musical so she went along not really knowing the story and was taken aback by how much she understood and related to Muriel.

“I saw the show in Sydney when it was first on and I remember sitting there in the audience watching this and thinking ‘I’ve never related to a character so much in my entire life’,” says Abbott. “I was such a fan of the musical, I played the soundtrack all the time in the car with my friends, we loved it so much.” She also watched the film, in which Toni Collette played Muriel and loved that too.

It never crossed her mind that she would take over the role of Muriel from Maggie McKenna, who starred in the musical when it premiered, or that she would win rave reviews of her own when the show returned for a commercial tour, opening in Melbourne in March this year.

For starters, Abbott hadn’t performed in a professional show, in fact she’d never got a recall at any of the auditions she’d attended. She didn’t even have an agent.

“My best friend was keeping me up to date with the audition process and [telling me] when I should send a self-tape, and who I should send it to, and all those sorts of things. So, I really didn’t know a whole lot about auditions or call-backs. I’d never had a call-back before,” she says.

Her friend had to talk her into sending a video tape for the role of Muriel. To her surprise, she got an audition, and a call back and then another, and eventually she got a phone call to say that the part was hers. She was working in a surfing shop at the time, and when she was told she had landed the role, she burst into tears in the street.

“The whole audition process was really intense and I never really thought that I could get it, so it was unreal when I got the call,” says Abbott. “I never thought that I would get the opportunity to audition for Muriel, ever; but what made the whole thing even sweeter was I was a fan [of the show] before I was a cast member.”

The musical features music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall and a book by PJ Hogan, who wrote and directed the film. Directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova, it is now previewing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre, prior to the official opening this Thursday, and then goes to Brisbane in September.

Natalie Abbott as Muriel and Stefanie Jones as Rhonda. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Abbott has learned a huge amount since auditioning for the show and says that the creative team has been “amazing throughout the whole process. I remember being so nervous in the audition waiting room, just waiting to go in, and when I went in [Simon Phillips] was right at the door to meet me with his big smile. Right off the bat he was super supportive and encouraging and let me bring my own thing to the role which was amazing,” she says.

McKenna won rave reviews when she created the role and many wondered who on earth could replace her. But Abbott has indeed brought her own spin to the role, and is incredibly touching in the role, winning rave reviews as well.

“The role of Muriel could have been written for Abbott, who grew up in a small coastal town and makes her professional debut as the star of this hit show. As the cast took their bows, she looked genuinely thrilled by the audience’s warm approval. It was richly deserved, as Abbott conveyed her character’s awkwardness, ambition, misery and joy with conviction, and has a gorgeous voice, notable for its agility and pure tone,” says Patricia Maunder in her review for Limelight.

Daily Review said that Abbott “goes the full Muriel. She’s the total package, with a belt so powerful you know she’ll win through. There’s a radiance to her voice that belies the dumpy frocks she’s wearing and confirms that she is the one true Muriel.”

On opening night in Melbourne, you could see Abbott’s emotion as the crowd roared its approval when she took her bow.

“Oh, my god! I really was [emotional],” she says. “That was the first time I had had a standing ovation in my life! Opening night was so electric. It was unbelievable, Melbourne was so amazing. It was my first time in a theatre, and we’d been rehearsing in the theatre for a while. And then suddenly the theatre was full of all these amazing people [in the crew] who were so lovely and encouraging and supportive, and then to have [the audience] stand up and show their appreciation for what we had done, it was unbelievable. It was the most incredible feeling ever. It honestly was the best night of my life.”

Abbott says that her performance has grown as she has settled into the show, and developed her scenes with the other performers. She’s also mastered the quick costume changes.

“I have a quick change into the Waterloo number. When we were running it in tech, we barely got on stage, it was so quick, but now we can do it in 15 seconds. I have a dresser and a wiggie and it’s almost like a dance with the three of us manoeuvring our bodies and our costumes and our wigs in a tight little space so I can get on stage in seconds.”

Abbott is thrilled to be performing the show in Sydney, where much of the story is set. “I heard from the original cast that performing [the song] Sydney in Sydney in front of people who live in Sydney is incredible so I’m really excited to do that, and getting into a new theatre is exciting.”

After the opening night in Melbourne, Rachel Griffiths who played Muriel’s bestie Rhonda in the film, came backstage to say hello to Abbott and Stefanie Jones, who plays Rhonda in the musical.

“She knocked on mine and Steph’s door and said hello and she was quite emotional, she was really excited and wanted to extend her congratulations which was incredible,” says Abbott. “I couldn’t really believe it, it was amazing and something that Steph and I will never forget.”

Muriel’s Wedding The Musical plays at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until September 1, and Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, September 19 – October 13