The 1994 motion picture Muriel’s Wedding, written and directed by PJ Hogan, thrust stars Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths to International stardom and instantly became an Australian cult classic. Grossing an equivalent of AU$117 million, today, even those unfamiliar with its origins know its iconic quotes. Now adapted into a humorous, smart and colourful stage show of the same name, this award-winning musical has opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.
After making its theatrical debut in 2017 at the Roslyn Packer Theatre in Sydney, produced by Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures; Muriel’s Wedding last year took home five Helpmann Awards for Best Costume Design (Gabriela Tylesova), Best Original Score (Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall), Best Choreography (Andrew Hallsworth), Best Music Direction (Isaac Hayward), and Best Sound Design (Michael Waters). It was nominated for six more, including Best Musical and Best New Australian Work.
Set in fictional Porpoise Spit, where the water is sweet, the men are overtly-manly and the women are perky and perfectly-groomed; everything seems perfect in this small, south-Queensland town. It’s here we meet our protagonist. Natalie Abbott makes her professional debut in the title role, lighting up the stage from the moment she catches the bouquet in Muriel’s off-the-shoulder, pink-frilled, polka-dotted, Target dress. Having been impressed when I saw her playing Nadia in one of my favourite musicals of the last few years; she hits all the similarly emotional and comedic beats as she did brilliantly in bare – a pop opera.
It’s difficult to not get invested in her underdog story. You get swept up in her humour, insecurities and hopes of the perfect life, before you too are forced to deal with your own feelings of loss, responsibility and growing up during the second act. I wanted to laugh and cry with her, and both empathised and sympathised.
Through the strength of the creative team, the contrast between humour and tragedy works so well within its two-and-a-half hour span. From leaving audiences in stitches for its risqué humour, to crying in their seats during the heart-breaking eulogy – it all works.
This is due to its strong cast too. Jarrod Griffiths (Brice), Stefanie Jones (Rhonda), Stephen Madsen (Alexander), Chelsea Plumley (Deidre), Christie Whelan-Brown (Tania) do well in their supporting roles, enhanced by a talented ensemble cast.
Pippa Grandison’s performance as under-appreciated housewife, Betty Heslop is a stand-out. The sadness and loneliness in her character, is subtle enough to play second fiddle against Muriel’s eccentricities, but with enough emotional build. Played out in relatively only a few words, we care about her character, making her conclusion, in the haunting score ‘My Mother’, sung beautifully by Abbott, that more impactful.
Unlike other musical adaptations that often feel irrelevant or uncomfortable in 2019, Muriel’s Wedding has been adapted for the 21st century, injecting nuances like social media and pop culture in a clever and non-offensive move to keep those familiar with the original material satisfied, while appealing to new audiences as well.
Kate Miller-Heike and Keir Nuttall have written a contemporary score that captures the character intricacies in lyric and song and the essence of the original film, seated perfectly side-by-side some ABBA classics (often rewritten to add Swedish humour). The sassy ‘Can’t Hang’, sensual ‘Mr and Mrs Shkuratov’ and genius ‘Meet the Heslops’ will have you wanting to buy the 2018 ‘Best Original Soundtrack, Cast or Show Album’ ARIA-nominated recording post-show, as I did.
Staging is quite minimal, yet never feels bare. There’s enough visual interest thanks to its inspiring choreography, bright set pieces and elaborate costumes. All three play important roles in establishing the contrast between the characters in her coastal hometown and the leather-clad, mohawks and cross-dressing misfits of Sydney.
Based on its adult themes, sexual references and strong language, I wouldn’t recommend it to children; but it’s a well-crafted, likeable musical that is unlikely to offend. I haven’t seen the film for comparison, but based off what I’ve seen in the original theatrical trailer, the musical hits all the expected potent notes.
Muriel’s Wedding proves there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished with a good friend and some self belief. It may be a little early to call it, but I think this might end up being my favourite musical of the year!
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Purchase tickets for Muriel’s Wedding here: https://murielsweddingthemusical.com
Muriel’s Wedding is playing in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre from March 12, and returns to in Sydney at the Sydney Lyric Theatre from June 28.
The reviewer attended the performance on 23rd March 2019.