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.

High and low

High Society, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 7; Anything Goes, Sydney Opera House, September 8   

IN one giddy night of mayhem, pairs of lovers – former, would-be, should-be, desperately mismatched – ricochet around in the search for a safe harbour. Intoxicants are taken, identities are mistaken, the low-born mingle with the high-born, a man is very much an ass and everything turns out for the best in the end.

No, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but High Society, which in the hands of director Helen Dallimore and a blue-chip cast is a blissful demonstration of just how foolish we mortals can be. Throw in a selection of Cole Porter songs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, True Love, Let’s Misbehave and many more) and the happiness is complete.

The 1997 musical (book by Arthur Kopit, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) is based on the 1956 film based on Philip Barry’s 1940 play The Philadelphia Story. Rich and beautiful Tracy Lord (Amy Lepahmer, adorable) is about to marry George Kittredge (Scott Irwin, hilarious) so upright you could use him as a plumbline and thick with it. Tracy’s former husband CK Dexter Haven (Bert LaBonte, coolly suave) pops by to solve a problem and cause mischief simultaneously and two party-crashing journalists (Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox, perfection) stir the pot and arouse passions.

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Tracy’s parents are having a spot of marital bother of their own, her Uncle Willie is a drunken, lascivious old goat and young sister Dinah is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer and meddler. It’s all go in the Lord household as a pre-wedding bash for 700 guests gets underway.

How to manage that in a 110-seat theatre? Amusingly and effectively, as it happens, with set designer Lauren Peters cunningly representing the glamorous big-house, old-money setting with a simple set of moveable arches. She even gets in a cheeky reveal after interval. Not only are changes of location achieved in an instant, there’s a pleasing swirl that echoes the emotional eddies and flows. The four-piece band – yes, only four – under Daryl Wallis’s direction achieves wonders and the sound balance is far better than usual at the Hayes, which is a big win.

LaBonte gives a slow-burn performance that speaks of feelings kept in check under a glossy and sophisticated exterior and Jessica Whitfield is very funny as Dinah, the wise-beyond-her-years kid who wants to save Tracy from herself. With Delia Hannah as Tracy and Dinah’s mother Margaret, Russell Cheek as Margaret’s errant husband Seth, Laurence Coy enjoyably chewing the scenery as Uncle Willie and Michelle Barr and Phillip Lowe as the two-person chorus of household servants, it’s a classy cast from top to bottom.

And you’d have to go a long way to see better than Lepahmer, Gay and Fox. Lepahmer looks a million dollars in her slinky red gown and is a greatly gifted, all-singing, all-dancing comedienne. Fox gets writer Mike Connor’s mix of cracking hardy and regret at wasted talent. And as Liz Imbrie, Gay gives a performance that should have music-theatre fans from around the country rushing to see it. In love with Mike, avoiding Uncle Willie’s clutches, seeing everything and understanding all, she is smart and witty and heartbreaking.

The contrast between High Society and Anything Goes, seen – partially – the following evening, couldn’t have been greater. The light, fizzing comedy so necessary for Cole Porter’s imperishable melodies and the featherweight storyline of Anything Goes (young lovers; social climbing; a nightclub singer who was previously an evangelist; gangsters on the run) is AWOL. There is little other than Dale Ferguson’s lovely costumes to evoke the drop-dead glamour of a sea crossing from New York to London in the 1930s. Director Dean Bryant leans too heavily on material that should be nimble and buoyant as it flies through the serial improbabilities of the book. I was so disheartened I left at interval so my comments, necessarily brief, must therefore be seen in that light. The second half may have delighted.

High Society ends October 4. Anything Goes ends October 31. 

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

WILLY Russell isn’t a great lyricist and not much more than a journeyman composer but he’s no slouch with a heart-tugging story as his life-affirming plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine prove. The 1983 musical Blood Brothers also mines gritty British working-class life, although with a darker purpose.

There are twin boys furtively separated at birth, one taken by a childless, well-to-do family and the other raised by his natural mother, a woman with too many offspring and not enough money. The crucial moment of decision – the eeny-meeny-miny-mo moment that determines which baby stays and which one goes – will influence the course of their lives. And their deaths, which are shown in the first minutes. All the rest is flashback, or to put it another way, fate.

Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It’s winning the postcode lottery that sorts the cream from the crap in this tough northern England town. Blood Brothers is a Greek tragedy about the British class system; an uneven, passionate piece told with bold, broad, obvious strokes and a tuneful, repetitive score. A couple of the tunes are like buses to Bondi, coming along every 10 minutes or so, the Marilyn Monroe motif is worked way beyond its capacities and there’s a lumpy structure that oversells things that could be dealt with quickly and races through more important matters. But who cares? Certainly not the show’s multitudinous devotees.

Any flaws one can discern in Blood Brothers, and there are plenty, haven’t hurt the musical one bit. Far from it. Only Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have had more music-theatre performances on the West End, and both have the advantage of being built along monumental lines. Blood Brothers is a much more modest operation. But something about its stern absolutes got under the skin. Blood Brothers is a product of the Thatcher era and Russell’s very real understanding of a divided Britain.

The 1988 revival ran for nearly 25 years and it’s commonplace to hear about people reduced to sobs at its ending, even though they know exactly what is to happen. For all its faults Blood Brothers spoke to its people and its heart-on-sleeve politics are still relevant. The divide between rich and poor continues to widen and privilege continues to bring unearned abundance.

The new, small-scale production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co goes at it with touching fervour. Scrappy Mickey Johnstone (Bobby Fox) and posh Edward Lyons (Blake Bowden) come across each other as seven-year-olds (“nearly eight”) and discover they share a birthday although they are unaware of their true connection. Their ease with one another – their essential alikeness – is in contrast to the gulf between stitched-up Mrs Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy) and fecund Mrs Johnstone (Helen Dallimore).

The action takes place over several decades on Anna Gardiner’s deliciously economic fold-out set, one that alas doesn’t have room to show the economical but driving four-piece band led by Michael Tyack. The musicians are banished to backstage, robbing the production of some rawness it could use with much profit.

The lengthy scenes with the boys as children show Fox and Bowden surprisingly convincing as kids in short pants, and then songs that hurtle the story forward as the deadly outcome shown at the start by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) comes closer. Cormick sings up a storm but in such a small space the inherent portentousness of the Narrator is magnified.

Andrew Pole directs with a lively, assured touch but backs away from the howling anger that is the raison d’etre of Blood Brothers. There is much to enjoy as the Narrator lugubriously invokes Fate, the impoverished Johnstone family bristles with rude energy and Mrs Lyons is a Valium crumb away from emotional collapse, but the Lyons family is overly caricatured and Dallimore’s fresh-faced, fresh-voiced Mrs Johnstone, appealing though she is, doesn’t look or feel like a woman who has had nine children and the toughest of lives. I didn’t emerge tear-stained.

Perhaps a more dangerous show will develop. Perhaps even has since opening night. Meanwhile, Blood Brothers is worth seeing for its brave heart and the lovely triangular dance of life between Mickey, Edward and Linda, the girl they both love. Christy Sullivan is a luminous Linda and Fox’s yearning Mickey and Bowden’s sweetly honourable Edward are just wonderful.

A version of this review ran in The Australian on February 12.

Blood Brothers ends March 15.

Williamson, Fleming

Cruise Control, by David Williamson, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, April 30

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming, bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, ATYP Selects, May 2

DAVID Williamson has been writing plays for more than 45 years and hasn’t lost his touch with the well-crafted one-liner that effortlessly extracts a happy burst of laughter from a full house. He can be very entertaining indeed. His latest work, Cruise Control, has a pretty good stock of zingers in a set-up guaranteed to supply copious opportunities for them.

Three couples on a cruise have failed to arrange private tables for dinner and are thrown together for the duration – over-sharing Americans (Kate Fitzpatrick and Henri Szeps), brash, confident Australians (Helen Dallimore, Peter Phelps) and a tricky English couple comprising nice put-upon wife and self-regarding, philandering husband (Michelle Doake, Felix Williamson). All steam ahead for culture clashes and a big splash of sexual intrigue, leavened with some gentle social commentary occasioned by the presence of warm and wise steward Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda).

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

There is no profundity here, but Williamson is a keen observer of human tics and foibles and the going is easy for the first half. Alas the second half sails into more turbulent waters and does so rather creakily with an over-explanatory and frankly unbelievable denouement.

Marissa Dale-Johnson’s design makes astute and evocative use of the small Ensemble space, the cast is strong and Williamson, who took on direction duties, acquits himself well in that regard. But perhaps another director might have been able to persuade the playwright to give that second act another couple of drafts. Not surprisingly, though, The Ensemble already has had need to extend the Sydney season by offering performances at Chatswood’s The Concourse after the Kirribilli run.

Justin Fleming’s His Mother’s Voice could also do with another draft or two but its subject is entrancing and already it’s a work of substance and resonance. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, fluidly moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son (the very composed 12-year-old Isaiah Powell when young, Harry Tseng when an adult) the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary.

Isaiah Powell in His Mother's Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell in His Mother’s Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music.

The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating.

Suzanne Millar choreographs the swirling action (she co-designed the sparse, cleverly flexible set with John Harrison) with admirable clarity and it was a particular pleasure to see so many actors of Asian heritage on stage. How frequently the theatre world talks about diversity, and how infrequently we actually see it.

His Mother’s Voice ends May 17.

Cruise Control ends at The Ensemble, Kirribilli, on June 14. Then Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, June 18-21, followed by The Concourse, Chatswood, for three performances on June 24 and 25.