Muriel’s Wedding returns to Sydney

Based on the film by P.J. Hogan. Book by P.J. Hogan, music and lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures. Lyric Theatre, Sydney, July 4

Muriel Heslop is a bogan, a ratbag, a complete dag. She’s cunning but not terribly bright. The hideous frock she lifts from Target to wear to a wedding speaks volumes about her taste, as does her attendance at that wedding, which joins arch-bitch Tania Delgano and thick pantsman Chook in holy matrimony. Muriel lies, she cheats, she covets fame and when it comes her way she unthinkingly discards the few people who care about her. And, bless her, we absolutely adore her. She’s the underdog of underdogs and must be barracked for. It’s the Australian way. Plus the fact that P.J. Hogan’s 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding is practically a sacred text.

Hogan insisted on writing the book for this musical version himself despite not being an experienced theatre hand and it paid off. He understood that updating the piece gave him access to pure gold; that social media’s ability to create a star who was famous for being famous was pure Muriel. She could be an influencer! Actually, if I’m not mistaken, a brief influencer reference is new to the production, which has been slightly retooled – the show premiered way back in late 2017 and has had a bit of catching up to do with digital trends. It was also substantially recast for its Melbourne season earlier this year and is now back in Sydney.

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Natalie Abbott, centre, as Muriel Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

The nips, tucks and additions are beneficial and include a useful rethinking of Progress, the paean to unbridled property development, and an expanded role for the Swedish fab four ABBA, whose music is Muriel’s guide to life. What good luck that ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson held out on the matter of rights to their songs until Mamma Mia! ran out of steam. Muriel’s Wedding would be unthinkable without them and in the meantime (various people have wanted to do a Muriel musical for more than a decade) social media became all-pervasive. In a brilliant upping-the-ante move, for instance, Muriel’s wedding of convenience to visa-needing star swimmer Alex Shkuratov is live-streamed.

Muriel’s journey starts in her coastal home town of Porpoise Spit, crucible of her formation as a thoroughly flawed human being. It’s here we meet her vile, hair-tossing “friends”, layabout siblings, bullying father and neglected mother, all subject to the most unsparing treatment. Well, all except Muriel’s mother Betty. “I hope this story has a happy ending,” sings Betty poignantly about the potboiler romance she’s reading. We know how it ends for her.

So this is a comedy? Yes and no and finally yes, in that it does end happily for Muriel, her true friend Rhonda, and Brice, the first man to show Muriel true affection. Not all viewers are happy that Muriel gets to go off with a bloke at the end, which didn’t happen in the film, but he’s an underdog too, so yay!. Brice’s Act II self-deprecating song, Never Stick Your Neck Out, sets out his father’s advice for a happy life. Don’t aim high and you’ll never be disappointed. Only an Australian musical would have such a jaunty ode to under-achievement.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s music and lyrics are endlessly enjoyable and repay repeated listening (the original cast recording is available and excellent). There are big, singable, super-tuneful numbers in The BouquetAmazing, Here Comes the Bride, Why Can’t That be Me and True Friend and then there are the fabulously wicked satires on Heslop family life (Meet the Heslops) and the Porpoise Spit airheads Muriel so wants to be like (Can’t Hang and Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked – both just brilliant). As for My Mother (Eulogy), you have no heart if the tears don’t start pricking the backs of your eyes. Muriel comes to wisdom the hard way.

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Stefanie Jones and Natalie Abbott in Muriel’s Wedding. Photo: Jeff Busby

Every song hits its mark and, just as wondrously, sits entirely comfortably alongside ABBA. The small band under music director Daniel Puckey performs wonders.

Just one quibble: in Sydney, a rollicking celebration of the city’s elastic approach to moral and social standards, one lyric has it that you’re accepted whether “black or yellow or beige or brown”. This isn’t the songwriters’ fault, but the song would have more authority if there were more people of colour on stage singing it.

Under Simon Phillips’s buoyant direction Muriel’s Wedding expertly negotiates the mix of satire and pathos. Even at its most gaudy the show never lets you forget it has a heart, even if on opening night in Sydney the heart was a little obscured as some in the cast worked just that bit too hard. The margin of error in a piece such as this is minute.

The title role’s originator in Sydney was newcomer Maggie McKenna and her successor Natalie Abbott made her professional debut as Muriel in Melbourne. Abbott, like McKenna, is a delightful presence on stage and sings wonderfully. There is more for her to find in Muriel but her journey from insecurity to acceptance was touching. Stefanie Jones settled into a very fine, tough-outside-sensitive-inside performance as Rhonda while Pippa Grandison’s reading of Betty deepened as the show progressed. The highly experienced David James was note-perfect from the start as Bill Heslop and another newcomer, Jarrod Griffiths, a suitably sweet and nerdy Brice.

Muriel’s Wedding has a limited run in Sydney before transferring to Brisbane in September.

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David James, centre, as Bill Heslop. Photo: Jeff Busby

My review of the Muriel’s Wedding premiere in Sydney appeared in The Australian on November 20, 2017

Who doesn’t have a little of Muriel Heslop in them: the self-doubt, the hurt, the longing to be noticed and admired, the few extra kilos, the regrettable tendency to lie and steal? Well, perhaps that last quality isn’t universal but Muriel’s many flaws are what made her so relatable and so lovable when PJ Hogan brought her to the screen in 1994. Je suis Muriel.

The passing years haven’t dulled Muriel’s impact one little bit. On the contrary, the misfit from Porpoise Spit shines ever more brightly, and how. Under the ebullient guidance of director Simon Phillips, Muriel’s Wedding arrives on the musical stage with raucous, ribald, uninhibited energy and an unshakeable belief in the concept that more is more, particularly in the show’s manic first half.

The phrase “too much” has no absolutely meaning here. Gabriela Tylesova’s designs flood the stage and the eye with colours seen nowhere in nature, Andrew Hallsworth’s scintillating choreography is rarely out of sixth gear and Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s new songs – every one a keeper; extraordinary – just don’t stop coming. Neither do the fellatio jokes. Just so you know.

Hogan had dibs on writing the musical’s book and has delivered a faithful but updated version of his film. Muriel (Maggie McKenna) has no job, no friends, a dysfunctional family and a rich fantasy life fuelled by the songs of ABBA. Borne on the breeze of her mother’s misappropriated credit card, 21st-century Muriel – or Mariel, as she restyles herself – heads for Sydney and radical reinvention.

Her goal is marriage and famous-for-being-famous Kardashian-like celebrity. She wants to be a hashtag and in the show’s darker second half she gets her wish. And then she gets wisdom.

Making her professional stage debut, McKenna doesn’t quite access the deep well of sadness at Muriel’s core but her goofy eagerness is endearing and she is entrancing when it comes to the wonderful songs that illuminate Muriel’s inner life (young music director Isaac Hayward did the splendid orchestrations and arrangements).

Why Can’t That Be Me and My Mother are wrenching. Amazing and A True Friend, sung with the superlative Rhonda of Madeleine Jones, bring tears to the eyes just thinking about them. The celebration of female friendship is intoxicating.

Phillips deftly negotiates the big shifts from Aussie kitsch on steroids to genuine emotion, aided by an exceptionally well-chosen cast. The broad humour doesn’t hit its mark in every instance and there are a couple of scenes that are too long but there is no denying the skill with which each laugh is pursued.

Christie Whelan Browne, playing the ghastly – but married! – Tania gives a masterclass in physical comedy and timing. Tania’s girl-group song with her bitchy acolytes, Can’t Hang, is pure delight. Helen Dallimore is a hoot as Deidre Chambers, the woman unaccountably attracted to Muriel’s father Bill (blustery Gary Sweet). Ben Bennett is sweetness itself as Muriel’s would-be boyfriend while Stephen Madsen oozes sex appeal as the man she marries.

The outlier and linchpin of the piece is Muriel’s neglected mother Betty, given heartbreakingly quiet dignity by Justine Clarke. There are no jokes for her, just a beautifully written scene that edges into the magical and the surreal with a little help from ABBA.

Muriel’s Wedding, if you’ll forgive me, deserved its ecstatic reception.

Assassins, Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 19.

“I shall be remembered,” cries Charlie Guiteau as he dances his way to the scaffold, singing a plaintive hymn of his own devising. Charlie who? History can be cruel to those who seek to make their mark by whatever means possible. We may remember the effect of their actions but precisely who they were and the reason they did what they did? Not so much.

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins (1990) throws together a motley band of successful and would-be killers of US presidents and assesses them against the unforgiving standards of American exceptionalism. “Everybody’s got the right to be happy,” the opening number asserts, by which is meant the right to be noticed, be taken seriously, make a mark, be someone, be famous.

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Bobby Fox and Jason Kos in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

The right to bear arms makes the pursuit of those goals just that bit easier. Some things never grow old. (Guiteau, by the way, was one of the winners, despatching James Garfield in 1881 partly because Garfield ignored his desire to be US ambassador to France.)

Assassins is explicitly set in a fairground shooting gallery, evocatively designed by Alicia Clements (set and costumes) and Ross Graham (lights) as a dark, seedy dump with touches of tawdry glamour. The action sits outside of time and place. Here, in a hallucinatory present, presidential murderers and wannabes from elder statesman John Wilkes Booth (Abraham Lincoln, 1865) to John Hinckley Jr (Ronald Reagan, 1981) get to explain themselves, mix and mingle a little and maybe get a little understanding.

Dean Bryant’s production of this rarely seen Sondheim comes very close to being great. The crack team includes a terrific five-piece band under Andrew Warboys’s direction and Andrew Hallsworth as the very fine choreographer. The cast couldn’t be better and the staging expertly walks the tightrope between black humour and coruscating anger and back again.

The themes have certainly not worn out their welcome. Like the tolling of a muffled bell, certain words repeat throughout Assassins. “Never, never, never.” “Nothing, nothing, nothing no good.” “No one listens.” “I am nothing.” Not. No. For all their delusions and misguided passions, these flawed souls have a powerful point about life’s injustices.

David Campbell in ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

David Campbell in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

It’s just a pity Bryant doesn’t let their carnival masks slip more often. Assassins would be more potent for it. His Little Shop of Horrors, which premiered at the Hayes early last year, was pitch-perfect; Assassins occasionally less than that, including the final image, which offers an easy laugh but not a dramatically satisfying reason for being in a work that gives the deplorables their moment in the sun.

The extraordinary 11-member cast otherwise knocks it out of the park. Each one deserves nothing but superlatives. Kate Cole and Hannah Fredericksen form a wacky double act as Sarah Jane Moore and Charles Manson acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. They each attempted to kill Gerald Ford in 1975 within three weeks of each other, as unsuccessful in handling a gun as Ford was in winning respect. Connor Crawford is the unnervingly self-effacing Hinckley, who shot and injured Ronald Reagan in an effort to win Jodie Foster’s attention.

Martin Crewes as Guiseppe Zangara (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933) and Jason Kos as Leon Czolgosz (William McKinley, 1901) make their anarchist firebrands worthy of our consideration and compassion. Justin Smith’s tremendously good Samuel Byck (Richard Nixon, 1974) is the epitome of madness masquerading as reason. “I’m talking, you’re listening,” he says. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” Well, that’s what they all feel.

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen ASSASSINS (c) Phil Erbacher

Connor Crawford and Hannah Fredericksen in Assassins. Photo: Phil Erbacher

Newcomer Maxwell Simon is impressive as the sunny balladeer who morphs into Lee Harvey Oswald (John F. Kennedy, 1963) and Bobby Fox’s Guiteau gets the big vaudeville song-and-dance treatment, nailing the number’s frenetic, “it’s showtime” gaiety. Appropriately though, David Campbell (the tightly wound, upright Booth) is first among equals. “The country isn’t what it was,” Booth sings in 1865 and his anguish echoes through the ages.

Rob McDougall gets the show off to a strong start with his laconic, sonorously sung shooting gallery proprietor and Laura Bunting is wonderful in Something just Broke, the song that finally turns the musical’s gaze away from the assassins and towards the ordinary lives they affected.

It’s powerful material despite the occasional clunkiness in Weidman’s book, particularly as Sondheim’s score is hugely effective, co-opting popular musical styles appropriate to each assassin’s era. Good luck with getting Hinckley and Fromme’s soft-rock duet Unworthy of Your Love out of your head.

Tickets: $70-$78. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au. Duration: 1hr 45mins with no interval. Ends October 22.

Little Shop of Horrors

Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 23.

RESISTANCE is useless Earthlings. Little Shop of Horrors is back and roaring for warm blood. Human blood. Your blood. I doubt it will be denied, at least in cult-musicals circles. The greatly cherished show has an almost mystical following and, with this production, should recruit a new generation of devotees.

To recap: after an unusual atmospheric disturbance, lovable loser Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) stumbles upon a weird plant and brings it back to the drooping Skid Row florist shop where he works alongside another of life’s punching bags, self-sabotaging Audrey (Esther Hannaford). Given the name Audrey II by lovesick Seymour, the plant soon reveals itself to be carnivorous. Rapaciously so. What could possibly go wrong? And what will nebbish Seymour do to hold on to his dreams once he becomes something of a celebrity thanks to Audrey II, with a concomitant boost to his previously minimal store of courage?

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Brent Hill as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical takes its B-grade schlock-horror plot from a 1960 Roger Corman quickie film but it has much more heart and substance than that may suggest. At the Hayes, in a tightrope act pulled off with impeccable style and sophistication, director Dean Bryant expertly digs into the multiplicity of dark interpretations implicit in the text while keeping things light and fleet enough on the surface to keep the laughs coming.

Hanging over the story are those mid-20th century fears of invasion and subjugation in which aliens stood in for the enemy at the gate (think Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids just to name two). These fears are not entirely unknown today. Little Shop of Horrors is also a cautionary tale about the dangerous seductions of fame and money, particularly for someone as innocent as Seymour.

But it’s the central story of doomed love and impossible aspirations that Bryant and his production team really hit hard and strong, just as they did in 2014 with their thrilling reworking of Sweet Charity.

Little Shop of Horrors premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, distant enough from Corman’s film to be able to indulge in fond nostalgia for the 1960s and having it both ways by casting an arch but critical eye over the lingering 1950s social values of the time. Bryant sails audaciously close to the wind in his conceptions of Audrey and Seymour. When we first see Hannaford’s Audrey her emotional fragility is heightened dramatically by the production design, an expressionistic rendering of the dismal grey lives of the denizens of Skid Row. Hannaford looks wraith-like and her not-entirely-American accent and twitchy, fey gestures make her seem already not of this world.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Audrey’s resigned subservience to her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello DDS (Scott Johnson) – she’s never allowed to forget Orin’s academic credentials – is exceptionally painful and gives exceptional poignancy to her wistful fantasy of a safe, well-appointed home (Somewhere That’s Green). The song is funny and heartbreaking all at once and Hannaford is attuned to every nuance. To hear her wish for not only a washer but a dryer too is to hear an entire life story. Hannaford’s performance is exquisitely calibrated: strange, beautiful and unearthly, even when raising the roof with Hill’s Seymour in Suddenly Seymour, where tenderness and a thumping great love ballad collide magnificently.

From Hill, also in tour-de-force vocal and dramatic form, we get to understand that even someone as sweet and gentle as Seymour is liable to turn into a kind of monster if he chooses to make compact with one. Still, that might be better than what he had to start with, no? And anyway, once on that slippery slope there’s no getting off.

Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors lets such thoughts niggle tenaciously while making whoopee with the musical’s trashy laughs, irresistible songs and grand guignol gestures. Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s series of Audrey II plants (Jamie Clennett, animator) is spectacularly successful, as are the designs by Owen Phillips (set), Tim Chappel (costumes) and Ross Graham (lights). In a brilliant coup de théâtre they transform a dismal grey world into riotous colour when success comes calling at the decrepit business run by Mr Mushnik (Tyler Coppin). Andrew Hallsworth’s pitch-perfect choreography is the cherry on top. Well, that and the darling red bias-cut coat Chappel gives Audrey in Act II. Divine.

While Hill and Hannaford are the glorious linchpin, the full cast of nine is a knockout, particularly Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel as a sassy, sexy Greek chorus in close-harmony girl-group guise and Scott Johnson’s pure macho evil as Orin that makes you laugh and gasp in horror all at once.

As can often happen at the Hayes on opening night the sound from music director Andrew Warboys’s small band was sometimes too boomy and precious lyrics were smothered. It’s a hard space to get right it would seem, but one is grateful for the gems it produces. One more thing: Little Shop looks too big for the 110-seat Hayes, but this was always likely. There’s a national tour ahead in more capacious venues.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on February 25.

Little Shop of Horrors ends in Sydney on March 19. Adelaide from April 20, Melbourne from May 4, Canberra from May 25, Brisbane from June 1, Perth from August 4.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it’s less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.