Muriel’s Wedding was birthed in a warm pool of media hype two years ago.
The search for its star went viral. The making-of process was captured in a widely-watched ABC TV documentary. The opening night reception was rapturous. Eleven Helpmann Award nominations followed and composer Kate Miller-Heidke’s already stellar rep went stratospheric.
So how is Muriel looking now, after a couple of spins around the block (this production played a Melbourne season before it came here) and with a new actor in the title role?
In short, it’s still deserving of all the praise it got. Of the stage musicals spun off feel-good Australian films released between 1992 and 1994 (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Strictly Ballroom and Muriel’s Wedding), Muriel is the most entertaining, musically satisfying and complex.
But somewhere along the line, the show has sacrificed some of its heart to hustle. Everything in Simon Phillips’ production is very sharp, but it seems to me that some of the emotional nuance that made this tale of a social outcast’s self-reinvention sing so sweetly first time around has evaporated.
PJ Hogan’s abrasively funny book updates his own screenplay to the present day to create a Cinderella story in which social media plays a motivating role, amplifying a young outcast’s desire for acceptance into a craving for fame.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cinderella story without a fairy godmother. Hogan supplies one in the shape of Swedish supergroup ABBA, with Frida, Benny, Bjorn and Agnetha popping into Muriel’s world as enablers and guardian angels.
And for our Prince Charming? Well, that would be Alexander Shkuratov, the Russian swimmer trying to marry his way toward Australian citizenship.
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Natalie Abbott, who made her debut as Muriel in the show’s Melbourne season earlier this year, has big sandals to fill and does so effortlessly. As Maggie McKenna did before her, she draws on the template created by Toni Collette but develops it into something uniquely her own. She packs a powerful voice, too, easily soaring above the pack when called to do so.
Stefanie Jones offers a less fine-grained Rhonda that her predecessor Madeleine Jones, but she’s a strong presence and serves as a welcome contrast to the shrillness and vacuity of Muriel’s Porpoise Spit peers, snappily played by Laura Murphy, Rachel Cole, Catty Hamilton and Imogen Moore. The friendship chemistry between Muriel and Rhonda is less palpable, however.
Debut season veteran Stephen Madsen’s Shkuratov is as gleamingly handsome as ever and he’s even more adept at depositing deadpan lines into precisely the right spot.
Pippa Grandison has some touching as Muriel’s mum Betty, unappreciated by her slothful children (Jacob Warner, Caleb Vines and Manon Gunderson-Briggs) and bullied by her husband Bill, played by David James, whose energetic performance fixes one of the few weak links in the 2017 production.