Few theatre events have been as hotly anticipated as the opening night of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical. A new Australian musical with an original score is a rare beast in itself but the reimagining of one of Australia’s best-loved films, which launched the international careers of Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths back in 1994, comes with high expectations. Everything from casting to costume design has been covered in the press and Maggie McKenna, making her professional theatre debut as Muriel Heslop, has already featured on the covers of both Limelight Magazine and Sunday Life. To say the show has been hyped would be an understatement.
The Cast of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical. Photos © Lisa Tomasetti
It’s a thrill, therefore, to report that Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, presented by Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures, lives up to expectations and more. The show has the audience laughing and cheering right from the start, opening with a bang on Muriel’s dead-end hometown Porpoise Spit with a larger-than-life beach number Sunshine State of Mind. This is Muriel’s world blown up and painted in vibrant, stylised song and dance.
With a book written by PJ Hogan – who wrote and directed the film, drawing on characters and incidents from his own life – Muriel’s Wedding the Musical updates the story of socially awkward, bullied and fantasy-prone Muriel Heslop into the 21st century, tracing her journey from Porpoise Spit to a new life in Sydney where she desperately wants to show the world she’s somebody – on social media. The stage’s proscenium arch is lined with tablet screens, the nature of fame having evolved since 1994.
Maggie McKenna and Madeleine Jones
Maggie McKenna gives a star turn in the title role, with a bright-hued crystal clear voice belying the goofier inflections she drops in. Toni Collette was always going to be a hard act to follow, but McKenna makes the role her own, trading Collette’s uncomfortable deadpan for a livelier spark and giving us a Muriel that we don’t just root for but love. In addition to the comedy, she brings plenty of heart to numbers like Lucky Last and My Mother.
Madeleine Jones is a fierce Rhonda, whose friendship gives Muriel the strength to find her own way. Her first act duet with McKenna, Amazing, is perhaps the most moving moment in the whole show. It’s as potent a love-song as you’re ever likely to hear onstage and I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes on a life of its own outside the musical.
Briallen Clarke, Michael Whalley and Connor Sweeney in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
In fact, the score by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, delivered with verve by Musical Director Isaac Hayward and orchestra, is fantastic across the board, with characters given vividly painted musical voices – from the grunting, inarticulate ostinato of the TV-watching Heslop children (Briallen Clarke, Connor Sweeney and Michael Whalley) to the astringent quartet of Muriel’s selfie-taking Porpoise Spit friends telling her she can’t be seen with them anymore in rap-inspired Can’t Hang. The ABBA songs, so iconic in the film, are retained, but this is by no means a jukebox musical – instead they are woven into the new score, Muriel’s inner-life writ-large upon the stage with appearances by the ABBA band members.
Helen Dallimore, Maggie McKenna, Gary Sweet and Adrian Li Donni in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
It’s a big cast, but there are no weak links. Gary Sweet is a slicker Bill Heslop (Muriel’s father) than the ‘battler’ we see in the film – his Porpoise Spit more Gold Coast than Tweed Heads and his song Progress is a slick Vegas show tune ode to development – but he retains all of Bill’s cruelty and casual racism. Justine Clarke is his put-down wife Betty, giving a heartfelt performance that nods to Jeanie Drynan’s performance in the film but also grows into a more fleshed out character here. Helen Dallimore makes a shrill Deidre Chambers, her singing infused with an operatic warble and her surprised exclamations absurdly high-pitched. Ben Bennett is the shy, timid Brice Nobes, a reviled Sydney parking inspector who falls in love with Muriel.
Laura Murphy, Christie Whelan Browne, Hilary Cole, Manon Gunderson-Briggs in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
Christie Whelan Browne as Tania leads Muriel’s Porpoise Spit friends – Nicole (Hilary Cole), Cheryl (Manon Gunderson-Briggs) and Janine (Laura Murphy) – with impeccable comic instinct. Stephen Madsen is the repressed Russian Olympic swimmer – Alexander Shkuratov – Muriel marries for money, fame and the glamorous wedding she’s always dreamed of, while Dave Eastgate puts in a fine comic turn as swimming coach Ken and several other roles throughout the show and Kenneth Moraleda takes on restaurant-owner Charlie Chan.
At a little under three hours Muriel’s Wedding is long, but it never feels it. Director Simon Phillips – whose Australian musical theatre credits include Dream Lover, Ladies in Black and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – keeps the action flowing swiftly, aided by Gabriela Tylesova’s brightly coloured, revolving puzzle of a set that spins scenes and characters on and off, facilitating some delightful reveals. Tylesova’s costumes are wonderful, from Muriel’s quirky outfits to Deidre Chambers’ flamboyant peplum suit and the lavish wedding dresses (the bridesmaids’ dresses are particularly extravagant).
The cast of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
The large ensemble is excellent, delivering athletic performances in a show that has them working hard all night, leaping from set-piece to set-piece, dynamically choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth. Sydney is a high-energy celebration of the city as a haven for freedom and alternative lifestyles (are there echoes here of Bangkok from Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’s own foray into musical theatre with Tim Rice, Chess the Musical?) while Here Comes the Bride is a lavish bridal extravaganza with hints of I Can Hear the Bells from Hairspray.
Hilary Cole, Helen Dallimore and Maggie McKenna in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
Musical theatre has, of course, different requirements to film, and in translating the story to the stage some of the intimacy and grittiness of the 1994 movie is lost (though the musical doesn’t shy away from darker, more tragic ideas in the second half). But ultimately it’s replaced with such joyous, positive energy that anyone who sees it will come out elated. Plenty of the famous lines from the film have been retained – not least of which the ubiquitous “You’re terrible, Muriel,” delivered with obvious relish by Briallen Clarke – but the loose ends are tied off more neatly in this telling, the messiness of life crafted into something more idealised.
With a fantastic score and brilliant performances by Maggie McKenna and Madeleine Jones, this new Australian musical is a hit and Sydney Theatre Company’s season won’t be the last we see of Muriel. Muriel’s Wedding the Musical isn’t just as good as an ABBA song – it’s better.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until January 27.