Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical review at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney – ‘colourful and charming’
There is a lot to like about this enthusiastic and colourful stage version of PJ Hogan’s cult 1994 film Muriel’s Wedding.
Muriel Heslop (Maggie McKenna) is stuck in small town Porpoise Spit. Her friends tell her they don’t want to be seen with her; her dad tells her she’s useless. But when Muriel steals her mother’s money and tries to win back the popular girls, she finds something better: the friendship of Rhonda (Madeleine Jones) and the freedom of Sydney.
Hogan’s adaptation of his film pushes the story into 2017, where Muriel’s dreams of a wedding (she never dreams of a marriage) get caught up in dreams of internet fame.
Simon Phillips’ production is all bright lights and popping colour, full voices and loud characters, fun choreography and an exciting new composition – with an expanded role for Abba, as Muriel’s personal chorus.
Muriel’s story feels perfect for the stage, and yet some things about this adaptation aren’t quite right. Part of the original’s darkness and critique of Australia has been lost. Phillips finds some wonderful performances, but he doesn’t quite find the right wry balance – the original’s sardonic core is washed out under the stage lights.
A pity, because when Phillips and Hogan reach for this darkness the musical is at its strongest. While McKenna is winsome in the title role, Justine Clarke, as Muriel’s mother, is the heart of the show. Overlooked and under-loved, she is physically stifled, her chest filled with anxiety, her choreography out of step. For the audience she is a figure of heartbreak, never the butt of the joke. The musical’s expansion of her story from the film is its crowning achievement, giving Muriel’s mother her own Abba moment: a tender rendition of SOS in which she asks: “But what if your life is as sad as an Abba song?”
This scene shines because it is a moment when the musical is most focused on its female characters: these scenes are the show’s strongest. Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall’s music and lyrics are at their most captivating in the duets between Muriel and Rhonda: joyous paeans to female friendship, and the way these relationships enable women to become the best versions of themselves.
It’s in the stories and songs about the male characters that the production lags. Today, the film still feels radical, with Muriel and Rhonda ending up single, and together. But here, the expansion of the role of Brice (Ben Bennett), as the awkward love interest, doesn’t do anything to grow the role of Muriel, instead it diminishes her.
Despite everything, in the end this Muriel’s Wedding leaves us thinking a woman still needs to end up with a man. Hogan and Phillips have opted for light at the expense of darkness and, it feels, at the expense of truth.