Before Stefanie Jones had even seen PJ Hogan’s 1994 iconic hit film Muriel’s Wedding she recalls knowing quotes like “you’re terrible Muriel!” (didn’t we all). But little did she know that just over a decade later she would be playing the role of Muriel’s best friend Rhonda Epinstalk in the musical adaptation, produced by Carmen Pavlovic, starring alongside Natalie Abbott in the leading role of Muriel Heslop.
It’s an experience, the Greek Irish Australian describes as rather surreal. But more so because she was originally chosen to play the role of Nicole, one of the bridesmaids, and was only informed this year – a couple of months ahead of the opening night at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne – that she had been selected to step up in place of her co-star Elizabeth Esguerra.
“It’s never a nice thing to lose a cast member and we all felt pretty upset,” she says.
“I was just totally shocked to be honest when he told me that they were going to give it to me, and because time is of the essence there hasn’t even really been much time to be excited or giddy about it, but the cast has been amazing; I’ve never felt more supported.”
For those not familiar with the story line, Muriel’s Wedding centres around Muriel, a socially awkward teen who is obsessed with the idea of getting married. Her father however has other ideas; a politician, he is oppressive and so Muriel has never even been on a date, let alone looking to walking down the isle anytime soon. Her ‘friends’ who are more socially adept than her, exclude her, leading her to form a friendship with fellow outcast Rhonda. Together they move from their small Australian town to Sydney, where Muriel changes her name and begins redesigning her life.
Stefanie couldn’t be more right for her latest role.
Hailing from Queensland, she says the moment she watched the comedic drama back in the 90’s, she recognised the characters instantly.
In adapting the film for an audience in 2019, while there are notable differences in the musical, Stefanie says it has worked very well, noting that P.J. was ahead of his time paving the way in the 90s with two strong female protagonists.
“It’s so timely with everything that is going on with the #MeToo Movement, and the Future is Female Movement because you have two really strong, independent leading women leading the show. It’s not a love story between a man and a woman, it’s actually a love story between two female friends and that’s why we love it so much because we crave that, we don’t have enough of that. We’re so excited to introduce it to a whole new generation.”
Musical theatre isn’t to everyone’s tastes; the mix of acting, dancing and singing can be a bit much for some. But Stefanie says that’s exactly what she loves about the medium.
“It’s unique … it’s like when you can no longer express yourself with just words, you have to sing. But I’ve always enjoyed, even from a little girl, the colours, and the movement and the dancing, and the sets. There’s just so much to see and enjoy, and of course as I’ve grown up and studied it, I have such respect for anyone who works in this form because you have to be so good at so many different things. You have to almost be really spreading yourself thin to make sure that you’re the best in your field in dancing, singing and acting.”
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For Stefanie, music theatre, in some respects, is all she has ever known. Her career began at the age of seven when she appeared as Young Eponine in Cameron Mackintosh’s 10th Anniversary Tour of Les Miserables – at which point she admits she didn’t even know it was a possible career option.
“I was always singing in the car and wanting to put on shows for guests, and my mum had allowed me to start dancing, which I was desperate to do; it felt really natural. I just wanted to keep doing shows every single year, whether it was a school musical or some community theatre for kids, holiday workshops, that sort of thing,” she recalls.
It was in her teens that her search for future prospects led her to the Victorian College of the Arts, and saw her make the big move from Brisbane to Melbourne, alone, at the age of 17. Now just over 10 years on, the actress is proud to say this is now her bread and butter, with a series of credits to her name including her roles in The Sound of Music, Brigadoon, Oklahoma!, as well as screen credits in Molly, The Divorce and Neighbours.
More recently in 2016, she was a finalist in the prestigious Rob Guest Endowment Awards, and aside from her role in Muriel’s Wedding The Musical is playing the role of Giulietta in Aspects of Love at The Hayes Theatre in Sydney.
But it hasn’t been without its challenges, admitting that it can be a fickle industry to crack.
“It’s lovely to have goals, but it’s so out of our control. Sometimes you can be really, really right for the role, but they just want to go in a different direction because of the other person they cast,” she explains. “But as long as I continue to get employed and audition well, I’m honestly so happy.”
Her commitment to the pursuit of her art has also meant living away from her family from a young age. Her maternal grandmother who hails from mountainous Arahova in Greece, ensured she passed on a Greek influence from one generation of women to the next – further cemented when Stefanie herself visited the extended family in Greece.
“I went there as recently as 2017. It’s stunning; I just can’t believe that a place like that exists! There’s fresh water taps on every corner – I’ve never tasted anything so delicious in my life. Good food, good company, it’s amazing, I love it there.”
On Tuesday, Muriel’s Wedding had its first preview show, with opening night set to take place on 23 March and after the full season will go on to tour Sydney mid-year.
The original actors of the film, Toni Colette and Rachel Griffiths attended the world premiere in 2017. Will they be coming this time around?
“I heard that it got a really great response and they loved it, so maybe!” she says.
“That would be just totally wild to meet them. I would love that.”
For details and to purchase tickets, visit murielsweddingthemusical.com