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Dancing Queen

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Madeleine Jones and Maggie McKenna as Rhonda Epinstall and Muriel Heslop

Muriel’s Wedding: the musical
Ros Packer Theatre
26 December

When I suggested to my musical-mad daughter that we have a family outing to the latest, greatest Australian musical, Muriel’s Wedding, she point blank refused. “No. It’s too depressing.” And this from someone who adored Assassins, loved Miss Saigon and lapped up Evita, none of which are exactly feel good bonanzas. Indeed, the musical, in spite of its upbeat, jazz hands tropes, has long been deeply invested in the dark side. Even The Sound of Music has Nazis. So why is Muriel too depressing? Why not ordinary little Muriel from Porpoise Point? Pants-on-fire Muriel with her fragile relationship with reality and her vivid inner life dancing to a soundtrack of ABBA on repeat?

Humankind cannot bear too much reality. And maybe it’s the in your face reality of Muriel’s world which makes it an at times unbearably dark story. Unbearably dark, and utterly compelling.

PJ Hogan’s translation of his 1994 classic is a masterpiece of play-building in itself. The audience is waiting for all the iconic moments of the movie, the unforgettable lines — “Muriel, you’re terrible…” –and they’re all there, but woven in so artfully that they still keep their comedic punch. (Perhaps the only exception is the leaky beanbag). In addition, he’s made Muriel’s spirit animal, ABBA, a bigger part of the action, amplifying her feelings, goading her on and, in a ghoulish moment, welcoming her mother to the suicide club. It’s a brilliant conceit, and Benny tipping his head jauntily sends us whizzing back to the 70s. Meanwhile the contemporary references — what did Muriel do before the selfie?– whilenot essential, fit well with the story.

The original music, from Kate Miller Heidke and Keir Nuttall, is good solid stuff, not helped by a rather fuzzy and top heavy sound mix. The most powerful number is Muriel’s Eulogy to her mother, which takes Muriel-the-character, and the stunning newcomer Maggie McKenna, to a whole new emotional and musical pitch. The big ensemble numbers bustle along but, again, it would be great to have a more punchy, live, sound to the band. It’s broad brushstroke stuff, and fair enough, all in the tradition of the big, brassy musical, but I missed detail and nuance.

 

The plot, moving from suburban drear to Sydney glamour to the candy shop of the wedding boutique, is a designer’s dream, and Gabriela Tylesova does not disappoint. The costumes are adorable, from Muriel’s mum’s tracky daks to Deirdre Chambers tailored suits. As for the set, the detail is pared back (partly, I imagine, to let the costumes and the characters shine), instead using a double revolve to move from location to location and screens to frame the action. Indeed, the final scene is a nod to its cinema origins, as Rhonda, Muriel and Brice (oh OK, they gave in to the lure of a happy ending) drive off into the sunset.

All in all it’s a terrific show: beautifully constructed by PJ Hogan, ingeniously directed by Simon Phillips, gloriously decked out by the design team and with top-notch performances from across the entire ensemble. I won’t mention all the stars, but a shout out to Justine Clarke, transformed into a heartbreakingly put upon mother, and the wicked spark of Madeleine Jones as Rhonda Epinstall. And a final roar of approval for Maggie McKenna. It’s hard to believe this is her professional debut, and I look forward to seeing much more from her.

Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical plays until the end of January, but good luck with getting a ticket. Hen’s teeth.

 

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