A question commonly asked in arts circles is where all the new Australian musicals are. Surely, they do exist, but grand-scale, blockbuster song-and-dance shows isn’t something we’re generally known for. Hot Shoe Shuffle – arguably Australia’s first hit musical – premiered only 24 years ago, and since then only Pricilla and Strictly Ballroom have made it to West End audiences. Global Creatures’, (who are also co-producers in Muriel’s Wedding) troubled production of King Kong is due to premiere on Broadway in 2018, but the big ape is hardly a representation of our cultural landscape. A national identity that relies on BBQs, sports and pub rock was always going to have trouble squeezing chorus numbers into the mix, yet our audiences flock to international touring shows in droves. So, why don’t we have more of our own?
Much like the Australian way of life, Muriel’s Wedding is colourful, vibrant, a little irreverent, unpretentious and a whole lot of fun. The 1993 film was always ripe for stage treatment – an underdog lead surrounded by a cast of larger-than-life characters, a gang of villainous girls and a story of escape via new friendship ticks many boxes. That’s before you even get to the ABBA songs. This production stays on-track to the original film. Muriel is an outcast who longs to be married, while tagging along with a girl-crew who see themselves way out of her league. Dumping her broken hearted, she escapes to Sydney for a new life with her new-found friend Rhonda, before Muriel’s ambition to shine against all costs catches up with her. A few tweaks are added to bring the action into present day, and suddenly we have a story about yearning and social media in the modern age.
The show is impeccably cast, with flawless performances throughout. Maggie McKenna’s Muriel is vulnerable yet doggedly adorable in her insistence on being accepted. Madeleine Jones makes a star turn as Rhonda while Justine Clarke’s Betty Heslop steals parts of the show. Gabriela Tylesova’s set design is an almost neon-coloured brutalist Australiana, with placing represented by large, often singular pieces in bright block colours. The addition of video around the proscenium was also a great touch at various points, and costumes were suitably garish yet offering a few nice character flourishes (Muriel wearing all Gorman outfits as soon as she moves to Sydney, and her vain arch-nemeses in Camilla numbers were nice easter eggs for some).
The score, by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall might be the show’s only drawback, however slight. While it shines in parts (particularly opening number Sunshine State of Mind, Meet the Heslops and Sydney), it gets a little bogged in pop-ballad territory in others, and you can hear Miller-Heidke’s vocal melodic stylings throughout each character’s performance. There are also a lot of songs, with 16 numbers in act one alone. While vocal performances are stellar, the weight of the score leaves little room for character and story to breathe. It would be interesting to see some of the comic sensibilities played through action rather than song, particularly with such strong chemistry between McKenna and Jones.
Muriel’s Wedding is the perfect benchmark for what we can achieve in musical theatre. While the story and aesthetic is incredibly parochial, the hit of the original movie and the world’s continuing curiosity with our culture shouldn’t stop this one – in the right hands – becoming the next global hit.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical is enjoying performances at the Sydney Theatre Company until 27th January. For tickets and more details head HERE. The reviewer attended the performance on 25th November.
Photo by Nathan Atkins