Based on the 1994 iconic Australian film of the same name, Muriel’s Wedding the Musical has taken to the stage for its Melbourne debut in 2019. With its book by PJ Hogan (the same brain who wrote and directed the movie), the show is directed by Simon Phillips and contains original music and lyrics penned by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, as well as some songs by ABBA who were essential to Muriel’s journey in the original film.
Like the movie, the stage production revolves around title character, Muriel Heslop who lives in Porpoise Spit in Queenland, is a wallflower, lacks any real friends, doesn’t fit in with her siblings, is constantly called ‘useless’ by her father and longs to get married because it’s all she’s ever dreamed of. Despite being a talented liar, it is hard not to root for Muriel because she only wants to better her life. Natalie Abbott is the perfect Muriel Heslop, portraying the character as sweet, adorable, dorky and lovable despite her wrong-doings. I was also very enchanted by Abbott’s beautiful voice to the point I found it very difficult to fathom that this is Abbott’s professional debut.
Accompanying Natalie Abbott on stage is Stefanie Jones as Muriel’s best friend, Rhonda Epinstall. For the stage, Rhonda has had a makeover, still ever the rebel but with a punky pink hairdo. Stefanie Jones has wonderful chemistry with Natalie Abbott and their characters really do feel like fast friends in their fun number of ABBA’s “Waterloo”. But it is when they sing their duet “Amazing”, you really start to feel warm and fuzzy feelings and wish nothing bad will happen to either of the characters, even with the profanity dropped in the heartwarming ballad (which was refreshingly great, actually).
As the show progresses, the story expands and differs from the film. For example, it was very confusing trying to figure out what time and era the musical is set in. In the movie, the film is set in the 90’s and with the costuming and fashion on-stage, it still feels like the 90’s. However, the song number “Can’t Hang” despite being really catchy, threw me. The four evil girls lead by Tania Degano played by Christie Whelan Browne suddenly start singing about hashtags, Taylor Swift and constantly refer to internet slang. So, is Porpoise Spit supposed to be some crazy time warp where everyone is backwards despite Muriel’s father singing about “Progress”? Probably, but it isn’t really clear. But before you can question any further, the show surprises you with more changes from the film, but changes that I can understand and agree with. I thoroughly enjoyed the character Brice Nobes having a bigger role in the show to the point of having his own song “Never Stick Your Neck Out” in which Brice tries to decide on whether to text Muriel or not after their awkward first date. Every time Jarrod Griffiths came on stage as Brice, I couldn’t stop smiling.
While Muriel still does meet a foreign wannabe Australian Olympic swimmer, the fierce South African swimmer David Van Arkle from the film has been replaced. In the musical we meet ambitious Russian swimmer, Alexander Shkuratov played by Stephen Madsen who is hilariously fantastic in a Russian inspired number, “Mr and Mrs Shkuratov” where Muriel and Alexander commit to marriage so that Alexander can be an Australian citizen to excel his career, and Muriel can get the elaborate wedding she’s always wanted.
The musical makes excellent use of ABBA by not only playing and making reference to their songs, but actually have the band ABBA pop-up in many scenes. Despite being imaginary, the band accompany and converse with both Muriel and her mother Betty Heslop played by Pippa Grandison. Although mostly fun, the film changes moods drastically in ABBA song, “SOS”. Betty Heslop converses with the band and the scene transition to “My Mother” with the Heslop siblings is actually genius, heartbreaking and left me sobbing.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical has more depth than its film counterpart; more highs and more lows. Muriel seems more real, relatable, aware of her actions, her consequences and is more self-reflecting than she ever was on-screen. Despite the show confusing me with its 90’s costumes and references to social media (which is forgivable given the storyline), the musical has a very important message of self-love and authenticity that many of all ages can learn from. And despite these small tweaks, the production flows well, with the story progressing naturally. Yes, it is imperative to see the film before seeing this show, but with beautiful original music and lyrics and a clever use of ABBA, Muriel’s Wedding is a solid musical, one of the best Australian musicals I have ever seen and is a must see for all film fans and theatre goers alike. I honestly wish it all the success (hopefully internationally) and I hope I can see it again soon before it leaves Melbourne in June.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is currently playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne. Tickets are available now through Ticketek but final tickets have been released, so act fast.