Praise ABBA! The homegrown hit is here and it's not at all terrible
Adapting a canonical Australian film into a stage musical? Who you gonna call? Simon Phillips! He pulled it off with Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; surely the director could do the same for that daggiest of screen heroines, Muriel Heslop. Both films leant heavily on internationally famous pop songs from the ’70s, both virtually burst at the seams with the kind of kitsch that cries out for a musical number, and both have remained adored cultural touchstones, even for those who only recall them from their original cinema release, back in 1994. So the question sits large on this production’s shoulders: is it as good as the stage adaptation of Priscilla? The answer is no. No, this one is way better.
Perhaps it is the source material. PJ Hogan’s film, despite the superficial similarities to Stephan Elliot’s more raucous and frankly crasser sibling, is a finely balanced dramedy, often profoundly sad and sharply satirical amongst all the comic mayhem. Hogan and Phillips are responsible for the adaptation, and they’ve very carefully modulated the tone and shifted the emphases so that Muriel’s journey from zero to hero fits more snugly into the traditional structure of a Broadway musical, without sacrificing the film’s nuance and edge.
The first major change we notice is the look: where the film was drenched in the pastels of a past decade, the stage show pops with block colours, blindingly sunny and over-lit. Muriel (Natalie Abbott) sticks out immediately among the buff bods and perfect toothy smiles, and it isn’t long before her “friends”, led by the fiendishly self-aggrandising Tania Degano (Christie Whelan-Browne), throw her over because “you just made us look bad”. When Muriel insists that she can change, they reply, “you’ll still be you”. So she remakes herself, with the aid of a stolen credit card and a new best friend, Rhonda (Stephanie Jones), until she’s no longer even recognisable to herself.
So much of the book is lifted directly from the screenplay, so we get the iconic lines – including several “You’re terrible, Muriel”s, and “I’m not alone, I’m with Muriel” – as well as the subplot about Heslop patriarch and all-round shit Bill (David James), his corruption and philandering with beauty consultant Deidre Chambers (Chelsea Plumley), not to mention the truly tragic figure of Mum (Pippa Grandison). But the show is most successful when it finds its own pathways into the story, when it deviates from the source material in favour of something truly theatrical.
The most obvious example of this, and the single greatest genius of the show, is its use of ABBA. It is easy to forget that, even in the film, the songs of the Swedish behemoth were a symbol of Muriel’s sadness and tendency to withdraw from reality, so it’s fitting that Hogan and Phillips take the idea a step further into something wonderful if not a little creepy. ABBA (Laura Bunting, Jaime Hadwen, Evan Lever, Maxwell Simon) are present throughout; popping out of Muriel’s closet to encourage her to steal Dad’s money, money, money; seducing her into abandoning Rhonda in her hour of need; even, in the boldest move of all, talking mum into a final, irrevocable act. It’s a delicious idea, brilliantly realised.
Newcomer Abbott is terrific as the gawky, dishonest but entirely loveable dag, Muriel. She has a great, bluesy voice and a boisterous presence that is offset by a melancholy sitting just under the surface. Her performance reminds us of Toni Collette’s star-making turn, but never feels derivative. Jones is very fine too as the bolshy and fiercely loyal Rhonda, in a role she only came into weeks ago. Together, they make a joyous and winning couple. Grandison is simply beautiful as the increasingly distant mum, and Jarrod Griffiths is adorable as Muriel’s eternally optimistic love interest Brice Nobes. Whelan-Browne is superb as complete bitch Tania, and James is a suitably grubby Bill – although nobody on the planet could substitute for the late great Bill Hunter in that role.
Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall have produced a bit of a mixed bag with the music and lyrics. The show has two establishing songs, with the opening number ‘Sunshine State of Mind’ and ‘Sydney’, and while they are fun they do little to advance the plot. And while Muriel’s songs ‘The Bouquet’ and ‘My Mother (Eulogy)’ are lovely, they’re not quite the towering ballad the protagonist needs to establish character. The best songs go to the cruel friends, ‘Can’t Hang’ and, in an effortless update of the film’s social capital, ‘Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked’. ABBA numbers are seamlessly merged into the sound mix, as if they were composed for this show alone.
Phillips’ talents for spectacle and pacing, for visual wit and punchy mise-en-scène, are on full display, and Gabriela Tylesova’s set and costumes are wonderfully bright and breezy. Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography is particularly good, managing to be both piss-take and genuine article simultaneously. Musical director Daniel Puckey gets a terrific, multi-faceted sound from his musicians, who navigate the score’s impressive range of styles with total confidence. As a professional outfit, the show is hard to fault.
Turning well-loved films into big-budget musicals is commonplace these days – from the barrel-scraping awfulness of Dirty Dancing to the sublime poignancy of Grey Gardens – so it’s heartwarming to see this one sit so proudly next to its source material. There’s an authenticity about Muriel’s Wedding The Musical, stuffed with clever additions and genuine innovations, that even the pathologically self-denying Muriel Heslop would recognise.
|Venue name:||Her Majesty's Theatre|
219 Exhibition St
|Transport:||Nearby stations: Flinders Street; Parliament; Melbourne Central|