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.

About last week … April 2-8

In the week just gone I went again to The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake, this time to see Lana Jones as O/O. I’ll wait until I’ve seen Natasha Kusch – coming up at the Saturday matinee – before I embark on a full discussion of Stephen Baynes’s production and the key exponents. In the meantime I’d like to start a petition to free Rudy Hawkes. The AB senior artist has been fronting up night after night as either Prince Siegfried’s mate Benno or the wicked Baron von Rothbart. In fact, he is listed as dancing one or other of these roles at 18 of the 21 performances (they end on April 20 in Sydney). I do think that’s cruel and unusual punishment for such a senior dancer.

But thanks to the AB for putting up on its website and leaving up casting for the key roles for the whole season. It’s helpful. Queensland Ballet doesn’t do it, nor does West Australian Ballet.

Speaking of websites, the AB has given its site a big, big makeover. It was needed, although I feel it’s going to take some time to work out how to navigate its many tendrils. Some first thoughts: I’m not sure it’s terribly accurate to label the senior artists “rising stars”: several have been at that rank for quite a while and may stay there; in addition they dance principal roles regularly. And the soloists are rather unnecessarily dubbed “singular talents” and the coryphées “dancers to watch”. I do, however, direct you to the section Music at the Ballet. Therein (keep scrolling) you will find notes on “Iconic scores of The Australian Ballet”, written by yours truly.

And some more idle website thoughts. Having just been to Brisbane to see Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cast for which is studded with artistic director Li Cunxin’s recent Cuban hires, I thought I’d take a look at Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s website to see just who was left in Alicia Alonso’s company, so frequently denuded of talent as successive waves of dancers seek better conditions elsewhere. Ages ago BNC was still listing Yanela Piñera as a premier dancer (equivalent to a principal here) and Camilo Ramos as a principal (equivalent to a senior artist). And they are even still listed as being in Havana despite joining QB last year. Victor Estévez is also listed as a BNC premier dancer. The 22-year-old joined QB this year as a principal.

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Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Pippa Grandison, Glaston Toft as The Seekers. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Seekers bio-musical Georgy Girl arrived in Sydney last week with a thud. It features pretty much all The Seekers’ folk-pop hits, gorgeously sung by Pippa Grandison (playing Judith Durham) and Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft as, respectively, Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and Athol Guy. The problem, as so many have said, is with the book by Patrick Edgeworth, Durham’s brother-in-law. It doesn’t so much craft a story as endlessly drop facts – plop, plop, plop – each with the same weight as the one before or after. Let’s put it this way, a book that spends as much time on Durham’s attack of appendicitis as on The Seekers’ extraordinary Sidney Myer Music Bowl homecoming concert in Melbourne in 1967 (crowd: 200,000) is not an effective one. The dialogue is laboured, the jokes cheesy, the choreography clichéd … why go on? Those songs, though. They are smashing and Grandison is special.

On Thursday night it was off to Belvoir to see Kit Brookman’s new play The Great Fire. The state-of-the-world family drama with lots of revelations and fingerpointing doesn’t break any new ground unfortunately. There are, however, several pluses. It’s directed by the ever-excellent Eamon Flack and has a tiny role for Peter Carroll to which he brings devastating truth.

On Friday Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre opened The Original Grease on Friday in the bijou Reginald Theatre in the Seymour Centre, where Squabbalogic is a resident company. Squabbalogic’s artistic director Jay James-Moody is a talented director and can do a lot with very little but in this instance he was over-stretched (and puzzlingly introduced a brief flash of nudity into proceedings, which seemed a sign of panic). It probably seemed an excellent idea to have performers close to the age of the characters but it was always going to be a big call to find 17 suitable triple-threat performers (for that is the size of The Original Grease cast) in the one place at the one time. Those onstage were mostly not long out of training and it showed, although it was worth giving it a go.

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The cast of Squabbalogic’s The Original Grease. Photo: Michael Francis

As I wrote in my review in The Australian on Monday, “The Original Grease is a piece of music-theatre archaeology that gives an insight into how something little became something big, sacrificed a lot of its rough-and-tumble energy and made a fortune.” And yes, you can see why the show would have been so embraced by Chicago in 1971 when it was made and in 2010 when the reconstruction appeared. I liked its scrappiness and sense of community, even though it’s messy and over-long. But with the best will in the world one couldn’t call this production evenly cast. I do, however, look forward to seeing Coral Mercer-Jones in something else. She was a knockout Rizzo.

Georgy Girl, State Theatre, Sydney, until May 27. Perth from July 8.

The Original Grease, Seymour Centre, Sydney, until May 7.