BWW REVIEW: Heart-warming And Hilarious, MURIEL'S WEDDING THE MUSICAL Is A Brilliant New Australian Musical That Must Not Be Missed
Saturday 18th November 2017, 7:30pm Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay
MURIEL'S WEDDING THE MUSICAL, the much anticipated musical theatre adaptation of PJ Hogan's iconic movie from 1994, is absolutely wonderful, capturing the heart and soul of its inspiration with an added depth and incredible new music by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall. This new work presented by Sydney Theatre Company in conjunction with Global Creatures reignites the audience's love for misfit Muriel as all the elements of a blockbuster musical come together to prove that Australians can create amazing musical theatre to rival anything on Broadway or the West End.
PJ Hogan has given the famous story a modern update, inserting contemporary challenges like the need for social media validation whilst retaining the aspiration that some young women still have that they will only be validated once they are married. These variations aside, the majority of the story stays true to the original, taking the audience on Muriel's journey from the sheltered and slow life of Porpoise Spit, where unless you are perky and put out, you'll be considered an outsider, to the freedom and acceptance in the big city, Sydney, and the ultimate lesson in being able to accept oneself. The famous lines that became part of the Australian lexicon have been retained and are delivered with perfection. Subplots are reinforced and actually make more sense in the reworking, particularly the influence of ABBA on the young woman's world and the darker undertone of deception and obsession is more pointed when set to music and paired with the wonderful costumes, set design and lighting.
Award winning set and costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has created a decidedly simple set of bold colours and cutout scenes to create the picture postcard images of the sun and surf of Porpoise Spit and Sydney Harbour which provide the perfect backdrop to her stunning costumes. Whilst many new shows are using a series of moving panels to alter the spaces, Tylesova's choice to have them move more independently to give more than an aperture or letter box transition allows for more creativity particularly when paired with the turntable stage and Trent Suidgeest's lighting. The bright aesthetic but 'simple' design also lends itself to the idea that the set and costumes are a manifestation of what Muriel finds important, valuing appearance over her surroundings as she longs to be like the bitchy popular girls which is further reinforced by the animated i-devices that illuminate the floral procenium.
With a gentle nod to the 80's, some of which has come back into style, Tylesova draws inspiration from contemporary fashion in all its depth and breadth. Queen bitch Tania Degano and her posse are presented as the stereotypical sheeple that dominate the tacky mainstream middle class where everyone wants to be individual but they all end up looking the same. The quartet try to prove their worth by wearing the current 'it' designer who has come to represent a degree of tackiness, in this case one that favours variations on the theme of floating fussy colourful prints, in stark contrast to Muriel's hipster retro style that is actually quite cool to anyone that shuns the mainstream monotony. Tylesova's parade of wedding dresses is amazing and the bridesmaids' dresses for the big event are breathtaking in their showgirl extravagance which really does justice to Rhonda's statement of "it was worth it just for the Bridesmaids alone". The expression of the variety and acceptance of 'anything goes' in Sydney is priceless and the variation in the simplicity of Never Stick Your Neck Out is visually captivating in the way both scenes stick to a colour theme to unite the characters that are each individual.
Whilst ABBA features heavily, as it did in the movie, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have woven in a wonderful series of new songs that span across many types of genres from ballads to rap and rock. Their lyrics are clever and they have ensured that the work retains an authentic Australian sound and style. They capture the changing energy of the story from Sunshine State Of Mind's peppy brightness of the beach culture where everyone is perfect to the heartfelt ballads as Rhonda and Muriel build a friendship based on mutual adoration in Amazing, the engaging uplifting and inspiring acceptance of Sydney and the heartbreaking Eulogy of My Mother. Whilst there were some sound balance issues where vocals weren't lifted sufficiently on opening night, the music is wonderful. PJ Hogan's incorporation of the ABBA songs, and the ability to slot them into the dialogue, particularly during Money, Money, Money is inspired
Newcomer Maggie McKenna is an absolute gem as the protagonist Muriel. Padded up, she presents the plump, awkward outsider to perfection, as she balances recreating the role that catapulted Toni Collette into the limelight whilst putting her own stamp on the new Muriel. Fabulous facial expressions, a consistent Australian tone and the voice of an angel with the versatility to cover the heartfelt My Mother and the energy of ABBA, McKenna is cemented her position as a new Leading Lady of Australian musicals. She captures the character's innocence and naivety whilst also expressing the ambition that drives her to morally questionable choices.
Madeleine Jones presents Muriel's best friend Rhonda Epinstall as having the confidence and sass of someone that no longer cares what people think, having left the narrow minded folk of Porpoise Spit behind. Jones ensures that Rhonda is seen as a different type of outsider that unlike Muriel, cannot be manipulated by the likes of Tania but rather embraces life and its variety. Muriel's first boyfriend Brice Nobes is presented with a delicate awkwardness by Ben Bennett who ensures that the parking inspector is also seen as an outsider and shunned by society. Bennett captures the young man's innocence and his honesty that is able to express that he likes Muriel for herself, not what attention she can reflect on to him.
Helen Dallimore is priceless as Deidre Chambers, the dodgy Bill Heslop's suspicious friend who keeps turning up. She captures the snotty cosmetics consultant's bimbo persona with perfect physicality and expressions to the point that her simpering sycophantic squeeks elicit roars of laughter. Christie Whelan Browne presents the equally vapid queen bitch with fabulous flair and accuracy as she leads the pack of plastic princesses that seek to make the lives of any 'ordinary' girls' hell, thinking that having a husband validates her existence and right to a not very nice person.
Betty Heslop is a deeper character than the movie and Justine Clarke expresses the hurt and heartbreak of the mother that only wanted to be there for her family no matter how much they took her for granted. Gary Sweet however is the weak link of the performance with vocals that seemed to always end a little flat tonally but he does convey the smarmy confidence and cloying charisma that makes the philandering politician more plausible than the movie characterisation.
Stephen Madsen displays the best body in the business as Russian swimmer Alexander Shkuratov. In addition to the droolworth appearance, he also delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance as the Olympic athlete willing to wed a stranger to secure a spot in the Australian team whilst also filling Muriel's preconceived ideas of the perfect man. Hilary Cole is at her best when taking on the comic musical theatre roles and the role of Nicole Stumpf is a perfect fit as she is left to deliver the news that Muriel Can't Hang and later tries to evade the irate Tania.
MURIEL'S WEDDING THE MUSICAL is a fabulous production that must not be missed. It is proof that Australia can make wonderful main stage musical theatre with heart, humour and the Australian honesty and ability to laugh at itself. Presenting a currency and relevance to a contemporary age, MURIEL'S WEDDING THE MUSICAL also has a degree of nostalgia and touch of kitch to keep the fans of the movie happy whilst ensuring that it doesn't drift into tacky as it inspires people, particularly young women to see that they are valued for who they are, as individuals, not who they are married to and whether they fit some arbitrary view of beauty or conformity.
6 November 2017- 27 January 2018
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti