Have you ever wished ABBA could be your life guides, there in the tough times with words of advice, leaping out of your bedroom wardrobe to give you company when you’re all alone, and, of course, singing you into a better frame of mind with songs like “Dancing Queen”, “Super Trouper” and “I Do I Do I Do I Do I Do”?
No? Well, you may want to reconsider that particular life choice after seeing Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, based on P. J. Hogan’s hit 1994 hit film which put Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths on the acting map and convinced a whole generation of the unloved and the socially ostracised that they could triumph over the beautiful people of the world.
In this lengthened, feel good makeover of the original film, which retains the pointed social commentary and darker themes while bringing in some bright, punchy, walking-on-air moments that will have you skipping, out of the theatre on a cloud of confected, candy-coloured joy, ABBA take on an even more central role than in the film that played a pivotal role in bringing them well and truly back into the zeitgeist.
While their songs are now threaded through a feast of catchy, infectiously-hummably and lyrically-sharp songs by husband-and-wife creative team, Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, the Swedish foursome, dressed in some of their most iconic, fabulous costumes, play the part of guardian angels and life coaches to Muriel (played with daggy vivacity and sheer likeability by newcomer Maggie McKenna).
In Muriel’s more emotionally-downtrodden moments, and they’re a quite a few for the social outcast from Porpoise Spit in Queensland, ABBA steps out of wardrobes, shadows and stand atop a cruise ship stage to bolster the much-loved underdog’s slog to get to a place of emotional authenticity and self-acceptance.
But charming, funny and pitch-perfect though they are, ABBA (Benny (Aaron Tsindos), Björn (Mark Hill), Agnetha (Jaime Hadwen) and Anni-Frid (Sheridan Harbridge)) are not the only attractions in this superlatively good musical which updates Muriel’s Wedding into the social media age with some witty observations on the superficial banality of modern life and how that has exaggerated, rather than lessened, the great divide between the social haves and the social have-nots.
The song “Shared, Viral, Linked, Liked” is a highlight in this regard, performed with synchronised robotic brilliance by Muriel’s chief tormentors who are given catty fabulousness by Laura Murphy, Christie Whelan Browne, Hilary Cole and Marion Gunderson-Briggs.
From the opening number, “Sunshine State of Mind”, when the buffed and tanned residents of Porpoise Spot, parade out, surfboards underarm and swimming costumes on full perpetually summery display, we’re treated to a full-on bright and effervescent pop spectacle that, allied with Gabriela Tylesova’s minimalist but colourfully evocative sets, can’t help but place in an almost giddy paroxysm of delight.
With ABBA as a wryly observant chorus, a slew of witty, clever commentaries on life in Sydney (which contains a gloriously diverse nod to everything from hipsters and leather daddies to punks and drag queens) where you can be anything you want to be; well beside a parking inspector anyway, and a willingness to be a silly as it is profoundly insightful, Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is a joy, an at-turns laugh-out-loud, dark and sombre (it’s not all a whirlwind of pretty hype) romp through life’s many contrary moments.
Enlarging on the narrative of the original, the production, directed by Simon Phillips, gives us the happy ending that the more taciturn cinematic original denied us; in the film the ending is damn near obligatory and works potently to cap off the themes it explores.
The musical, of course, since it’s not Les Miserables, and almost no one dies (save for Muriel’s poor benighted mother (Justine Clarke) for whom death is a release from the travails of being married to Mayor Bill Hislop (played with greasy, desperate perfection by Gary Sweet) amps the happy ending, throwing in a romantic comedy happy-ever-after with parking inspector Brice Nobes to add to the defiant “f**k you!” to Porpoise Spit and its small-minded shallowness that caps off both film and musical.
The key themes remain throughout, most notably the idea that you have far more value as a person by remaining true to yourself that you ever do by pretending to be someone you’re not.
As Muriel, who rechristens herself Mariel in Sydney where she comes of age but loses sight of her unique individuality, discovers, in a world now rendered ever more deceptive by the false lure of social media “intimacy”, there’s not a lot to be gained by trading your true self for a confected counterfeit, no matter how alluring it might be.
Heavy message maybe but delivered with a vivacity and truthfulness so rich and uplifting, thoughtful and infectiously happy, that you will hit the footpath after the show humming a slew of the tunes, all of which, including five or six all-cast showstoppers, punctuate the narrative with such delicious and wholly welcome joy that you will wonder how you ever got through life without this wonderful musical to illuminate (and soundtrack) the way.
Muriel’s Wedding the Musical runs from 6 November 2017 to 27 January 2018 in Sydney, Australia where it is enjoying its world premiere.