Thursday, December 7, 2017

Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

Muriel’s Wedding - The Musical, based on the movie by PJ Hogan.  Book by PJ Hogan; Music and Lyrics by Kate Miller-Heidke & Keir Nuttall, with songs by Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus & Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA.

Sydney Theatre Company with Global Creatures Production at Roslyn Packer Theatre, November 6  - January 27, 2017/18.

Directed by Simon Phillips
Technical Director – Richard Martin; Musical Director (orchestrations, arrangements & additional music) – Isaac Hayward; Resident Director / Choreographer – Ellen Simpson

Music Supervisor – Guy Simpson; Sound Designer – Michael Waters; Lighting Designer – Trent Suidgeest; Set & Costume Designer – Gabriela Tylesova; Choreographer – Andrew Hallsworth

Muriel Heslop – Maggie McKenna; Rhonda Epinstall – Madeleine Jones; Bill Heslop – Gary Sweet; Betty Heslop – Justine Clark; Deidre Chambers – Helen Dallimore

Brice Nobes – Ben Bennett; Joanie Heslop – Briallen Clarke; Nicole Stumpf – Hilary Cole; Ken Blundell – Dave Eastgate; Cheryl Moochmore – Manon Gunderson-Briggs; Agnetha Fäitskog – Jaime Hadwen; Anni-Frid Lyngstad – Sheridan Harbridge; Björn Ulvaeus – Mark Hill; Alexander Shkuratov – Stephen Madsen; Charlie Chan – Kenneth Moraleda; Janine Nutall – Laura Murphy; Malcolm Heslop – Connor Sweeney; Benny Andersson – Aaron Tsindos; Perry Heslop – Michael Whalley; Tania Degano – Christie Whelan Browne

Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Kaeng Chan, Tony Cogin, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Tom Sharah

Isaac Hayward (Keyboard 1); Luke Byrne (Keyboard 2); Cameron Henderson (Guitar 1); Gary Vickery (Guitar 2 / Keyboard 3); Vanessa Tammetta (Violin / Viola); Clare Kahn (Cello); Emile Nelson (Electric / Double / Synth Bass); Steven Pope (Drums); Tim Paillas (Percussion)

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
with The Bouquet
Reviewed by Frank McKone
December 6

ABBA’s songs are used better in Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical than in Mamma Mia!, the Musical.  It’s hard not to compare the two.  Mamma Mia! cleverly weaves the story around 22 songs, introduces significant issues about men’s behaviour and women’s proper treatment, but ends in marriages all round – feels good but a bit too easy considering the less attractive reality expressed in some of ABBA’s more serious songs.

Muriel’s Wedding, especially in PJ Hogan’s updating of his movie script, and the black edge to the excruciatingly funny numbers, using seven of ABBA’s songs among the very witty songs – verbally and musically – by Miller-Heidke and Nuttall, creates a much more powerful effect.

Where Mamma Mia! is a highly enjoyable romantic comedy with some worthwhile social commentary along the way, Muriel’s Wedding focusses on exposing crucial issues of some men’s destructive behaviour, both in the family and at the political levels.  At her mother’s funeral, Muriel shows how she has grown up through the experience; so have her sister and brothers – and so have we.

The satire is funny – often terribly funny – because Muriel (but absolutely not her father) comes to understand how she has changed; while Mamma Mia!’s Sophie Sheridan quite simply gets what she hopes for, while her mother rekindles an old flame without her script providing any justification, apart from the romance of ‘falling in love again’.

Mamma Mia!’s women want to be independent and strong, but are waylaid by love.  Muriel and Rhonda, facing the horror of cancer – impossible to predict and probably incurable – learn what love really entails, gain in strength, and strengthen our understanding.  Hogan’s quality of drama is not strained.

In comparing these two very Australian productions, both have everything going for them on stage; but, for me at least, Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical gets an extra guernsey: the story of corruption and the satirical contrast of typical Aussie sexist culture in Porpoise Spit with the wild variety of the Sydney city scene has freed the designers to let themselves go.

A typical Mondrian painting

The stage design opens in primary colours, turning into edgy plain Mondrian-style art, against which Gabriela Tylesova’s costumes riotously explode – on the beach, in Oxford Street, under the Harbour Bridge, on the Opera House forecourt,  in every wedding dress shop you can imagine, at a tropical island resort, inside the Heslop lounge room watching tv, outside before and after Betty sets it on fire: scene after scene until the funeral service, where stark black takes over from frothy white.  This is design with emblemetic purpose, a drama in its own right.  A work of art – very specifically modern Australian art from John Brack through Brett Whiteley to Tylesova herself.

Beach scene in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical
Set and costumes designed by Gabriela Tyselova

Gabriela Tyselova's designs for 'Misfits of Sydney'
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

In some ways the choreography in Mamma Mia! from a ‘pure’ dance point of view was more original and complex, and therefore could be seen as more entertaining; yet Andrew Hallsworth and Ellen Simpson have exaggerated the dance and movement work in a way that make so much fun of Australian characters that we just could not stop laughing.  Somewhere behind our recognition was the old cartoon, “Stop laughing, this is serious!”, which has been picked up by the ABC in its series on the history of Australian comedy [ ] .

Ben Bennett as Brice Nobes
Design by Gabriela Tyselova
for Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

After the design, there’s the more than difficult job of praising individual actors, since no-one among the principals and the ensemble lost their footing – which they might well have done literally in such a fast moving production, which outshone the movie for set and costume changes with the cameras in our eyes permanently turned on. 

I’m sure everyone agreed with me that the long search which finally lighted upon Maggie McKenna for Muriel was well worth the extra effort, which we saw played out on ABCtv  in Making Muriel, broadcast on November 26, and still available on iView until December 26.  McKenna’s voice has the full range needed for the singing, while her acting superbly captured each mood, especially in the more complex situations where Muriel finds herself divided several different ways at once.

Maggie McKenna as Muriel Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

The groupies like Tania, Cheryl, Nicole and Janine were absolutely wonderful comedians throughout (comediennes? – or is that not politically correct nowadays), and were absolutely but accurately ghastly in their nasty unwillingness to accept Muriel, in the song Can’t Hang – about with us any more! 

Then the mystical silvery-white ABBAs, in Muriel’s and later her mother Betty’s imaginations, seemed to me, relying on my distant memory, to perform with as much elan as the originals in that faraway Eurovision contest in 1974. 

Christie Whelan Browne, Manon Gunderson-Briggs,
Hilary Cole, Laura Murphy (maybe not in correct order)
as Tania Degano, Cheryl Moochmore, Nicole Stumpf and Janine Nuttall
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

Briallen Clarke, Michael Whalley, Connor Sweeney
as Joanie, Perry and Malcolm Heslop
in the lounge room watching tv
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical

There’s far too much to cover here – I’m almost writing a thesis, already – but I have to say that it was Justine Clarke’s Betty, when she finally could no longer cope in the face of her husband’s calumny, who turned our feelings over, and turned the play around as the ABBAs sang SOS, and we realised what that meant.

And, of course, I haven’t mentioned what really happened when Muriel married.

What Muriel’s Wedding, the Musical does is to tie together the three strings of comedy, serious social criticism and personal growth through tragic experience to make a top quality theatrical work, which should well satisfy those of us concerned about ‘conservative’ programming by the ‘majors’ which I’ve previously discussed in Platform Papers commentaries. 

If Mamma Mia! The Musical is not to be missed, then Muriel’s Wedding, The Musical must not be missed even more.

Maggie McKenna and Justine Clarke
as Muriel and her mother Betty Heslop
in Muriel's Wedding - The Musical