This adaptation of PJ Hogan’s beloved film already proved itself a critical and popular hit when it premiered in Sydney in 2017. Almost entirely re-cast, including the key role of Rhonda only a few weeks before opening night, could Muriel’s Wedding the Musical maintain the magic for its Melbourne season? The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’, with newcomer Natalie Abbott shining in the title role and Stefanie Jones boldly stepping up from understudy to co-star as Rhonda in this fun, heartfelt and intelligent adaptation that’s arguably better than the 1994 original.
Natalie Abbott as Muriel. All photographs by Jeff Busby
Hogan himself wrote the script, and has included much of what made the movie such a delight. Misfit Muriel Heslop escapes her small-minded Gold Coast hometown of Porpoise Spit, her dysfunctional family, including dodgy politician dad Bill, and the nasty ‘it’ girls led by Tania. With her rebellious new friend Rhonda, Muriel starts a new life in Sydney, where timid first love with Brice is overrun by an unlikely marriage to a hot international swimming champion who needs an Australian bride.
This time he’s a Russian called Alex, but there are two much more significant and powerful changes for this stage version. One is having ABBA appear as Muriel’s imaginary friends, which naturally ease a few of their songs into the musical format, and also enhance the character’s complexity by revealing her inner thoughts. The four fantasy Swedes also provide her tragic mother Betty with a poignant exit, one of the best new elements of this adaptation. Hogan’s other significant change is updating the story to the present, in which Muriel’s desperate desire to be popular is perfectly adapted to social media’s shallow fame.
Christie Whelan Browne and cast.
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. Jones also inhabits Rhonda like she was always meant to play her, showing plenty of attitude and a strong, pleasing voice.
The supporting cast are also spot on, particularly Jarrod Griffiths as sweet, dorky Brice, Pippa Grandison as sad, muddle-headed Betty, David James, who gives Bill’s dishonest ambition a mean streak that hints at a path his daughter risks taking, and Christie Whelan Browne as Tania. She leads her posse of selfie-obsessed mean girls with perfectly calculated viciousness and hair flicking. Like most of the supporting cast, she also pitches in with a minor role and bolsters the well rehearsed, high-wattage ensemble for big scene-setting number, Sydney.
Natalie Abbott and Stefanie Jones
This and the numerous other non-ABBA songs are written by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, who have packed them with heart and humour. Other musical highlights include Muriel and Rhonda’s uplifting duets Amazing and A True Friend, Muriel’s wistful solo Why Can’t That Be Me?, and the funny, quirky songs Meet the Heslops and Shared, Viral, Linked, Like, which sums up Tania’s social-media-driven group. The songs work well with Hogan’s book, which deftly pivots from irreverent, sometimes shamelessly Aussie humour to moments of genuine pathos as various characters, not just Muriel, seek acceptance and love.
Visually it’s also a treat, from Andrew Hallsworth’s slick, upbeat choreography, to Gabriela Tylesova’s set, costume and projection design. She favours bold beachy colours and patterns, especially for the Porpoise Spit scenes, and contrasts them with an abundance of white for the ABBA characters’ retro styling and Muriel’s extravagant wedding dresses – culminating with the chosen one’s flouncy, layered excess that wears the bride rather than the other way around. The sets work extremely well at establishing the fast-moving locations and magnifying the action, from a grand representation of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to a low, white-tiled wall for the swimming pool where Muriel meets Alex.
Director Simon Phillips keeps all the elements of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical working together seamlessly, leaving one asking what’s not to like. Scratch around and you might find a few minor shortcomings, such as the lack of a big solo opportunity for Abbott, but except for those who don’t like stage musicals this is a show to fall in love with.
Finally, a note to parents and guardians. Though several people brought young children to opening night, this is definitely a show for mature audiences. The strong language, sexual references and sex scene makes it even more grown-up than the film.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, before returning to Sydney from June 28