‘You’re terrible, Muriel’ has stood the test of time and is still used in the Australian vocabulary today, but it should not be used to describe this wonderful new show based on the timeless 90s film. The cast and crew relished in a well-deserved standing ovation at QPAC in Brisbane to celebrate this classic Australian story brought to life on stage.
The beloved story of the awkward and unpopular Muriel Heslop is transformed wonderfully into a hilarious, heartbreaking musical about the underdog, the importance of female friendships and staying true to yourself, especially when times are tough.
Muriel Heslop’s iconic spirit is encapsulated perfectly by the multi-talented Aussie actress, Natalie Abbott. She is absolutely stellar as the insecure, relatable early 20s woman that desperately wants to fit in with the mean popular girls from her high school. When Muriel gets rejected she reunites with old school alumni, Rhonda. Muriel’s close friendship with Rhonda is beautiful to witness grow as they understand each other and what it is like to come from the small town of Porpoise Spit and get treated like an outsider.
Natalie has a phenomenal voice and carries the show brilliantly. She has the innate superpower to bring the audience in to see situations from her perspective, especially in the ‘I want’ song, ‘The Bouquet’ and ‘Why can’t that be me’ as she expresses the hurt she is feeling as she doesn’t feel good enough that anyone would want to marry.
Throughout the ups and downs in Muriel’s life her biggest breaking point is when her mother passes away. She reconsiders all the reckless decisions she made as she wasn’t there for the most giving person in her life when she needed it most. Natalie conveys the emotional tenacity required for this scene and expresses that feeling gorgeously in the ballad ‘My Mother’, the eulogy. Overall her range as an actor is wondrous and illustrates a quirky, real person that musical theatre doesn’t always shed light on despite her many mistakes.
Muriel’s new found best friend Rhonda is brought to life on stage by the incomparable Stefanie Jones. She is the grungy, atypical girl that is reflected in your real group of friends, but not always in film or media. Stefanie’s portrayal of the spunky friend is delightful to watch. She treats Muriel like she is worthy of being her friend and listens to her, unlike her family or school ‘friends.’ She really sticks up for Muriel in front of Tania and the mean girls and says ‘I’m not alone, I’m with Muriel.’ Stefanie has a spectacular voice especially in the musical number, ‘Amazing’ when she assures Muriel that she isn’t nothing when she is feeling insecure and hopeless, it is a beautiful moment in their friendship.
Stefanie and Natalie’s connection is other worldly for the iconic duo and their chemistry throughout the show is very real. Rhonda encourages Muriel to move to Sydney to start a new life where possibilities are endless and she can be who she wants to be. In particular, away from the small-minded town of Porpoise Spit.
The song ‘Any ordinary night’ is a bop that Rhonda and the ensemble sing with such fun, wild energy at the night club in Sydney. Later on that night, Rhonda’s health goes south and the audience discovers Stefanie’s versatility as an actress as she is concerned with how she will live on in Sydney with a tumor. Muriel comforts her and promises Rhonda that she will walk again and won’t let her go back to her smothering mother in Porpoise Spit. They perform a touching and comedic version of ‘True friend’ before all the chaos occurs.
Pippa Grandison embodies the shy and people-pleasing mother of Muriel, Betty Heslop. Pippa played the role of Nicole in the original 1994 film, ‘Muriel’s Wedding,’ this time she showcases the love and hope that is in Betty’s heart. Her character wishes her whole family will get along. However, she is constantly ignored and taken for granted by her lazy children. She is also bullied and shut out by her selfish husband, Bill. Pippa shines in this pivotal role as she demonstrates her ability to put the audience in her shoes, when she is continually brushed to the side.
Her voice is breathtaking in the song ‘Meet the Heslops’. The most heartbreaking scene is the ‘SOS’ sequence when she is passing away and it starts ‘snowing’ as she remembers how Bill used to be. The show doesn’t shy away from how bullying and excluding people affect mental health. Similar to the film, suicide isn’t a taboo subject and PJ Hogan brings to light how serious of an issue it has become in our society. It teaches the viewer to be kind, as you never know what people might be going through.
To juxtapose, Muriel’s egotistical political Father, Bill Heslop is played by the captivating David James. David illustrates how much Bill, despite being Mayor of Porpoise Spit, becomes more self-centred as he gets older. Bill only cares about having power and money. He treats his wife and children like they are a waste of space and he only cares about the reputation of having a ‘support system.’
His big number in the show is aptly called ‘Progress’. The song is catchy and David has a cracker of a voice with the perfect Aussie accent for the role. It shows what a con artist Bill is with his Chinese investor, Charlie Chan (Kenneth Moraleda). Bill believes that people shouldn’t stop creating opportunities for themselves although he does it in a comedic and dodgy manner. In this number he is also joined by the outstanding performers David Ouch, Kaeng Chan as the Japanese potential partners and the brilliant beauty consultant with a wonderful operatic voice, Deidre Chambers who causes some trouble. She is played by Chelsea Plumley.
Muriel’s brothers and sister are the quintessential Australian bogan siblings. Joanie, Malcolm and Perry Heslop are played hilariously by Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Caleb Vines and Jacob Warner respectively. They are wonderful in this production and capture the spirit of the typical Aussie Bloke or Sheila. They are comedic gold as couch potatoes, in particular watching the cricket in the number ‘Meet the Heslops.’
They utter the classic Australian slang like ‘Yeah, nah’ and ‘Nah, yeah.’ Manon as Joanie several times throughout the show pauses and exclaims the most popular phrase in Australian film history, ‘You’re terrible Muriel’. It receives the loudest cheer from the audience as the most anticipated line in the piece. When they hear of their mother passing they realise how much they would miss her and how much she did for them as lazy 20 somethings. They show their appreciation by standing by Muriel during the eulogy at their Mum’s funeral; it is a very heart wrenching and sweet moment.
The most scandalous and exaggerated characters in the show are the mean girls from Muriel’s high school. They steal the show with their crazy antics between each other. Tania Degano is played by the uber talented Laura Murphy, she is the Queen Bee of the group and is the lead tormentor to Muriel throughout high school and into their early 20s.
She gets married to a guy called ‘Chook’. Tania thinks that she has made it in the world because she’s married. One of the best lines she exclaims when she finds out she is being cheated on is, ‘I’m a bride, I’m supposed to be euphoric.’ Laura is absolutely perfect in this role and has the right amount of sass, confidence and for lack of a better word ‘balls’, to claim Tania as her own.
Tania’s friends are the most ocker Aussie girls. The most hilarious Imogen Moore as the ditzy and optimistic Janine Nuttall, Rachel Cole playing the ruthless and comedic Nicole Stumpf that sleeps with Tania’s husband at her wedding and the chatty, amusing Cheryl Moochmore played by the brilliant Catty Hamilton. They have some of the most inventive and hilarious musical numbers throughout the production. ‘Can’t hang’ is a well-crafted song that can easily be put on the radio as a pop hit. In this tune the girls are kicking Muriel out of the group and Laura spits a fierce rap, it is a fun but also very upsetting for Muriel.
Muriel’s Match.com ‘lover’ Alexander Shkuratov is embodied by Stephen Madsen. He plays a Russian swimmer aiming for gold at the next Olympic Games. However, he needs an Aussie bride to compete for the Australian team. Stephen is spectacular at portraying the egoistic foreign athlete. You first see him jump out of the ‘water’ in slow-motion shirtless and glistening.
Initially Ken his swim coach, played by the thrilling Dave Eastgate, encourages Alex to be affectionate with Muriel or at least give her a compliment. But Alex is wonderfully repulsed by Muriel and all he can come up with is ‘her hair smells like the Baltic Sea.’ He is so funny to watch especially in the song ‘Mr and Mrs Shkuratov.’ He tries his hardest to pretend to like Muriel when he holds a note for the longest time and the audience convey their admiration.
Brice Nobes is Sydney’s most friendly parking inspector as he happily gives people tickets. Jarrod Griffths takes on the fun-loving innocent character of Brice as the first person to notice Muriel when she moves to Sydney. Muriel is astonished that she gets kissed by him and subsequently believes anything can happen in Sydney. Jarrod portrays his character gorgeously as Brice falls hard for Muriel. In ‘Strangley perfect stranger’ he showcases his incredible voice when he reveals his feelings for Muriel, without knowing if she likes him.
Brice is afraid to message her after their date. The musical number ‘Never stick your neck out’ is when he explains that his father’s advice is to not try and he won’t fail. The whole male ensemble is dressed as though they are everyday trade workers in Sydney and all have a touch of fluoro yellow on each of their costumes. It is very effective on stage as they dance in unison and glow together, encouraging Brice to go for it with Muriel.
One of the major highlights in the show is the inclusion of the iconic band, ABBA and how their music was ingrained into the original film. This stage version of the show incorporates the four members of ABBA as imaginary characters that only Muriel can see and interact with. Jaime Hadwen plays the fun-loving Agnetha, the genius Laura Bunting grooves into the show as Anni-Frid and the hopeful Benny and Bjorn are brought to life by Evan Lever and Maxwell Simon.
They appear in the show when Muriel needs them most and act like guardian angels almost and of course belt out an ABBA song or two, like SOS, Dancing Queen, Waterloo and more. They also have some brilliant one liners and tell Muriel exactly what she wants to hear. The ABBA songs are carefully chosen and are placed at relevant moments to seamlessly carry the story line forward. It is fiercely executed in their iconic costumes and hilarious Swedish accents.
Muriel’s Wedding is a very ensemble heavy show and it relies on the group numbers to hold the story together like glue. They are magnificent at what they do and you can see they worked tirelessly to piece the entire production together. In particular, with all of the props and creative costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, especially Muriel’s wedding dress and the bridal shop scenes.
The ensemble play a variety of different characters and each one is so specific and intricate it is fabulous to watch and marvel at their versatility. This is especially true in their dance scenes choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth. They begin the show with a Porpoise Spit beach-themed dance number ‘Sunshine state of mind’ and then go to a wedding or two then to the ‘Sydney’ scene where they are all dressed in exotic city misfit outfits that creates a buzz of excitement in the audience.
One of the most comedic ensemble numbers is called ‘Life is a competition’ where they are Olympic swimmers with the caps, goggles and Aussie swimming costumes. It is humorous to watch them ‘diving’ off the blocks and hearing a fake splash, then towards the end they are doing synchronised swimming, it is so comical.
The musical of Muriel’s Wedding centres around the awkward, relatable Muriel and her struggle through bullying, self-acceptance, ‘fame’ and loss. It is paired with a killer, infectious musical theatre/pop score by Kate Miller-Heike and Keir Nuttall with bright, layered and flawed characters by the masterful PJ Hogan.
The show is brought into the digital age as social media plays a vital role in the story. All walks of life will love this show, especially the misfits and if you ever felt like you don’t belong. If you have seen the film you will love the musical. At the heart of it, the show focuses on true female friendship and how to always be there for the people that you love.
Don’t miss out and get your tickets to the final season of the show in Australia – head to www.qpac.com.au to secure your seats to the wedding of the year!
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical
Lyric Theatre, QPAC
Playing now until 26 October
All photos – Supplied