When PJ Hogan first approached Abba in the 1990s to ask if he could use their music in a new movie, they said no. Aware of their reputation as cheesy crooners they were worried the film would make them a laughing stock.
Hogan, of course, eventually persuaded Benny and Björn. Muriel’s Wedding was born. Abba was not so much mocked as revered: their music became the soundtrack of Muriel’s life, surely one of the most resounding antiheroines of our time.
Now Hogan has transformed his much-loved satire of small-town Aussie life into a musical – a co-production between Sydney Theatre Company and Global Creatures (responsible for the likes of War Horse and Walking with Dinosaurs). This time Abba also rule. Not just for their songs – of which there are many – but, mirage-like, as characters conjured up in Muriel’s mind.
Sporting white jumpsuits, platform heels and strong Swedish accents (“Yah! Yah!”), they pop out of cupboards and miraculously appear in bridal shops. They are Muriel’s confidants and coconspirators – shiny, sparkling gods of pop. And they’re as naff as hell.
The treatment of Abba – mercilessly poked fun at, albeit with lashings of love – encapsulates Muriel’s Wedding: the Musical. In a medium that lends itself more to big theatrical numbers then nuance, Hogan, with Simon Phillips directing, has created a show that is brash and brassy and done for laughs.
Setting the tone is an opening scene featuring dancing surf dudes and singing beach babes. From then on in, everything from national treasure Ian Thorpe to the Aussie penchant for six-packs and waxing (this must be the only musical with a line about pubic hair) is sent up. Nothing and no one, Abba included, is spared.
The result is a night that pulsates with high-spirited fun, spearheaded by a whip-smart script (“Emu? Cassowary?” Rhonda asks with mock innocence, trying to remember the name of her nemesis’s husband, Chook). Updating the action to the present day, Muriel no longer wants to be just a bride: she wants to be Insta-famous, a goal drummed home by giant smartphones that hang from the stage, lit up periodically by her online posts and a series of grotesque, pantomimish selfies.
In a production where Abba numbers could have easily drowned out any original score and lyrics, Keir Nuttall and Kate Miller-Heidke have proved themselves more than a match for their Nordic counterparts – a godsend for a production that so ruthlessly mocks everything Australiana.
Drawing on the likes of Beyoncé and tongue-in-cheek Taylor Swift, the Brisbane-based singer-songwriter duo has produced songs that are irresistibly catchy and, at times, memorably affecting. A standout, when Muriel is unceremoniously dumped by her frenemies, is Can’t Hang, a bitchy, highly strung, snappy little number brilliantly pulled off by leader-of-the-pack Tania, played with a blonde hair-flicking, hip-swinging arrogance by Christie Whelan Browne.
Pushing the action along is a clever set design by Gabriela Tylesova that mixes the prosaic with the poetic. When Muriel imagines the man of her dreams, performed by a chiselled-jawed Stephen Madsen (in this version her fake husband is, bizarrely, Russian rather than South African), he does push-ups in a white suit to prove his manliness before floating away, like the man on the moon, on a gleaming cutout of the Sydney Opera House.
Holding this all together is a first-rate cast. Madeleine Jones’ Rhonda is strong, likeable and vulnerable. Gary Sweet as Bill Heslop succeeds in making your skin crawl. Then there’s Maggie McKenna, daughter of comedian Gina Riley, in her professional stage debut as Muriel. Stepping into the shoes of Toni Collette is no small feat and McKenna, gifted with a powerful voice and stage presence, has panache. She never entirely feels like the girl, however, who puts herself down as “stupid, fat and useless”; she’s far too cutesy. Sticking out her tongue, too – a trademark of Collette in the film – feels inauthentic, a tribute rather than a genuine trait.
Meanwhile, darker elements of the film have been lost in translation to stage. There is nothing glamorous in the fate of the downtrodden Betty Heslop in the movie: even in death she is rendered invisible. Here, however, in a dreamy camp scene set in falling snow, Betty (Justine Clarke) is led to – one presumes – heaven by none less than Abba themselves.
The biggest issue, though, is only apparent in the final scene – a result, perhaps, of updating the setting to modern times. Muriel’s Wedding made an impact as a feminist masterpiece, long before hits such as Frozen, for preaching the sisterhood. Namely, that it is friendship and self-worth – not marriage – that matters.
In this version, though, Muriel finds herself by deleting her social media accounts. In the process she gets her best gal pal back and also a boyfriend, a former flame.
In many ways this is still a gutsy, confident production. Unlike The Bodyguard, which recently hit Sydney theatres, Muriel’s Wedding: the Musical is not simply a soulless cash cow or a vehicle for famous songs: this is a show with heart.
It’s just a shame that, 20 years later, Hogan has succumbed to the bubblegum ending he resisted in the film. Even for a bastion of female freedom like Muriel, the message seems to go, happy-ever-after still means getting a man.
• Muriel’s Wedding: the Musical runs at Sydney Theatre Company until 27 January 2018