Theatre

With the transformation of Muriel’s Wedding for the stage, some of the film’s winsome ugly-duckling charm has been lost, and along with it the story’s emotional reality. By Peter Craven.

Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical

Catty Hamilton, Christie Whelan Browne and Imogen Moore star in Muriel’s Wedding.
Credit: JEFF BUSBY

No one wants to be a spoilsport about Muriel’s Wedding. P. J. Hogan’s 1994 film – with Toni Collette as the dumpy dag and Rachel Griffiths as the fiercely insightful girlfriend who pushes Muriel to emotional fulfilment – is one of the great winners in the Australian popular culture stakes. It is an absolutely moving crooked romantic comedy, as homely as a bush ballad but wacky as well, with Sophie Lee as the face and arse of suburban deadliness of the most sexed-up kind and the great Bill Hunter as a ghastly version of the drover’s dog Aussie he could do like a Rembrandt.

Muriel’s Wedding was always an Australian folk opera and in that respect it was like Baz Luhrmann’s Australia – a musical without a score. Besides, there had always been the place ABBA had in the heroine’s head and hence the soundtrack. So, it was an obvious idea – as well as a good one – to think you might do a Priscilla with Muriel. To supplement its jukebox and sob story sweetness in a way that was beyond parody because it stared parody in the face and acknowledged the irregularities of its teeth and the enamel of its grin.
It should have worked like a dream, but it doesn’t quite.

That charmer of a director Simon Phillips showed great savviness in joining forces with P. J. Hogan, who wrote the new script too, and also with Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, who produced a pile of viable songs of a neo-subfolk-rock-cum-blues-and-soul variety to supplement the superabundance of old-time mush songs that ABBA ended up bequeathing to the stage Muriel’s Wedding.

While ABBA somehow made the transition from being kitsch to having some small place in everybody’s heart, Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical effects the opposite metamorphosis.

The Miller-Heidke–Nuttall songs are pretty good without having a transcendent hit number where the world stops. Hogan’s script is fine except for its excessively filmic bitsiness, which encourages rapid evanescences and transitions. He defies all the received wisdoms about the two-act structure of musicals where the second half should not be more than two-thirds the length of the first. Instead, Muriel goes on and on.

The real trouble, though, is in the direction and the vision projected. This is a Muriel so triumphantly camp, so shrilly energised, that it actually makes you worry about that least pitiable of species, the straight male. Anything sexual is projected as a cartoon distortion of itself – something that can only be shrieked at or leered at. This is Sydney Mardi Gras meets Sunshine State suburbia in a way that aims to have you gasping but sometimes makes you gag.

Remember the Sophie Lee character in the film? The brilliant vignette of the empty-headed girl next door with claws who is the shuttered victim of her own shallowness. It’s a good performance and a vivid one, but it pales next to the intensity of Toni Collette, who tries for an integrity beyond desire. Let alone Rachel Griffiths, as the Horatio figure who steals the show because of the gleam and brilliance with which she indicates the scalpel touch of suffering in a romance-drenched world of false expectations.

Well, in Phillips’s Muriel’s Wedding Christie Whelan Browne as the just-married floozy on the skids, played in the movie by Lee, steals the show and is meant to. She has a lunging deadly luridness as she detects someone else’s lipstick on her new husband’s penis. She is a malignant master of vengeful strident attack when she casts Muriel into Coventry. It’s a grand performance that escapes by a blink or two the obviousness of its conception.

Natalie Abbott as Muriel is at once buoyant and abashed. She is nice and intense in equal measure but costume designer Gabriela Tylesova’s stolen wedding outfit does make Muriel look more like an ice-cream cake in a state of collapse than it should.

The whole point of Muriel is to get beyond the glad rags, to get naked in a real loving existential sense. This production, which Phillips and Tylesova dress with a spectacular sense of extroverted gaudiness, presents the suburbia everything springs from not as a limited thing but as something infinitely risible. It is a bit like confusing Edna Everage at her most rampant with Marilyn Monroe at her most wry and poignant.

Stefanie Jones as the mate who sees the stars and suffers the pain is – apart from Whelan Browne – the best thing in this singalong dance-along shemozzle. She has moments of depth and quietness and fire as she must if this musical is to retain a shred of fidelity to its cross-textured original. But as someone said to me at opening night, the film original is a painting that uses parody to get at emotional reality and to then produce a parody of that is to risk queering the pitch.

There are all sorts of isolated instances of achievement. Pippa Grandison has moments of genuine poignancy as the mother who is pushed to the edge by a bevy of ABBA-ites who have somehow – why? – become archangels of the shadow of the valley. And Jarrod Griffiths as the awkward true love, Brice, does everything that is required of him when, having been misapprehended as a gay prostitute by Muriel (he is actually a parking inspector), he decides to act like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings to win the fair lady for all the faintness of his heart. All of which is Hogan’s deviation from his own original ending.

He also gets one of the most likeable – because it’s offbeat – songs, about giving up on hope and not sticking your neck out. This is sung in duet with Dave Eastgate as an extravagantly decked-out bikie thug.

And some of the better moments in this hit-and-miss Aussie battler of a musical come almost incidentally. P. J. Hogan’s massively digressive book, which Phillips never seems quite at home with, should have been pruned rigorously in the second half, where feet tap out of something other than musical excitation. It does allow ample treatment, though, of Muriel’s dealings with a Russian swimmer, who is afraid of being “The Gay”. Stephen Madsen not only looks good in Speedos but he actually has a histrionic authority that makes you think he is sexually alive regardless of his orientation and you simply want to cheer his humanity. Although it is interesting that the one character who projects a credible sexual power is gay.

Elsewhere the opening night audience shrieked as if the whole of life were just a bubblebath of erotic charades. Muriel’s Wedding is a long way from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which Phillips did so viably and so vigorously. Perhaps he is less successful here because the moral intensities are less explicit or perhaps because the capers he uses for his directorial dance of however many veils sit less effectively when the prime dramatic subjects are women rather than female impersonators.

The logic of Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical, exemplified at its most brassy and brilliant by Whelan Browne, is to present women as drag queens. The other difficulty is a serious one and a surprising lapse on Phillips’s part. It’s a famous principle of directing that the stiffest test for any director is not opera or sung-through Andrew Lloyd Webber-style subopera but the traditional post-Rodgers and Hammerstein combo of speech and song where you have to make the language of stage naturalism – the dialogue – sit credibly with the stylisation of song that in turn furthers the action.

Phillips did this very effectively in Priscilla, which proved a hit. He did it with commendable elan in the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And he did it like a master in Ladies in Black. He doesn’t do it in Muriel’s Wedding.

The scenes of straight dialogue sound like offhand gestures in the direction of song and the songs sound like muffled and optional attempts to substitute for the dialogue.

The best of the songs are the two duets between the heroine and her girlfriend – “Girls Like Us” and “Amazing” – which have a lilting power, a kind of standalone beauty of articulation. But they make big numbers from any standard musical, everything from “If I Loved You” to “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”, sound like the Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre.

In Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical you never know why someone is talking, you never know why they’re singing. You never relax at the humanity of the one or thrill at the crystallisation of the other. All you feel is that people are ridiculous and entertaining and colourful in their extravagant silliness and isn’t it all such a laugh, this soapy suburban drag show punctuated by pretences of loneliness and gestures to physical affection and gratuitous insertions of suicide.

Nor does it help that Phillips is using a relatively inexperienced cast and a rather less lavishly talented one than he did in his legendary production of The Drowsy Chaperone, which introduced Whelan Browne to the main stage. Phillips is of course an irrepressible man of sawdust and tinsel and Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical might transmute – at some time in the future – into something closer to the ugly-duckling glory of its original filmic expression.

Arts Diary

MUSIC Ability Fest

Coburg Velodrome, Melbourne, April 7

THEATRE Barbara & The Camp Dogs

Belvoir, Sydney, until April 29

MULTIMEDIA Temptation to Co-exist: Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley

Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, until July 14

MUSICAL West Side Story

Arts Centre, Melbourne, until April 29

THEATRE Mosquitoes

Sydney Opera House, April 8-May 18

MUSICAL Disney’s Aladdin: The Musical

Adelaide Festival Centre, until June 9

CLASSICAL Sibelius Violin Concerto

Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, April 12

Last chance

INSTALLATION Light Up Melbourne Festival

Birrarung Marr, Melbourne, until April 9

CULTURE Subiaco Street Party

Subiaco, Perth, April 6

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "Bridal sweet". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.