11th August, 2016*
*This was a preview performance and as there was no song list available, I have attempted to guess song titles, please forgive me if they are not totally accurate.
What would you do differently if you had a second chance? Or third? Or thousandth? This question lies at the crux of Danny Rubin (Book) and Tim Minchin’s (Music and Lyrics) musical adaptation of Harold Ramis’ 1993 film about weatherman Phil Connors’ entrapment within a single day in the obscure town of Punxsutawney during an obscure annual holiday. Minchin’s reunion with director Matthew Warchus sees the Matilda dream-team work their magic once more to produce this whimsical study of antithesis; big shot cynicism versus small town idealism, selfishness versus community spirit, flippancy versus pathos. The result is a transcendental journey through human morality in all its splendour, despondent lows and incandescent highs.
On entering the auditorium in place of a curtain the stage is filled with dozens of flatscreen televisions relaying loops of ‘Phil Connors’ Good Weather’, surrounded by weather related symbols. This preliminary show gives a sense of the scale of Warchus’ production and Rob Howell’s design, which continues in the complex use of numerous revolves and precisely choreographed repetitions to produce the time-loop in which Phil is trapped. However, Warchus’ genius doesn’t rely solely on the technical capacities of the Old Vic stage, as he also utilises delightfully quaint, but intrinsically theatrical staging strategies, such as portraying a police chase by method of houses and cars held aloft upon sticks by the cast.
Minchin’s score is similarly eclectic, delving into various genres ranging from the jazzy ‘Punxsutawney On Groundhog Day’, to the gravelly rock ballad ‘Never Give Up Hope’, to the rockabilly infused ‘Nobody Cares’. Yet all have the trademark Minchin wit – I never thought I’d hear a song which incorporates themes as diverse as exorcism, gluten intolerance, enemas and constipated oxen (it’s hilarious). Yet the real feat lies in Minchin’s reaping the rewards of seeds laid early on in the plot. Echoes and epiphanies are never more apparent than in life insurance salesman, Ned’s, resounding second act song. ‘On and On’ aches with pathos as a long-running joke evolves with a heart and conscience-tugging twist. Similarly, the repeated lyrical leitmotif, ‘I know everything’, is eventually flipped as Phil comes to the realisation that, really, he knows ‘nothing’.
This musical and lyrical antithesis and transformation mirrors the plot perfectly and forms the basis for the moral epiphany and transcendence at the heart of Groundhog Day which culminates in the searing honesty of the final song, ‘Seeing You’. After all the comical shenanigans gone before, Minchin’s musical and lyrical simplicity here is comparable to flipping on a light switch, or opening a window to the first day of Spring; the humble power it yields is immense, euphoric, and brilliantly satisfying.
The ensemble cast of characters assembled by Rubin and Warchus exudes the intimacy and eccentricity of small town communities – I must applaud the amount of quick-changes involved here – all the Punxsutawney inhabitants feel well rounded, despite the narrative paradox of being frozen in time, becoming more fleshed out the more Phil socially embraces them. Carlyss Peer’s Rita is warm, spirited, yet yearning for more, her song lamenting the dilemma of the modern woman looking for love hits the nail on the head of feminine complexities.
Yet the undeniable star of the show is Andy Karl as Phil. Karl breaks free of the Bill Murray shaped shackles so ingrained in pop-culture history (a hard feat) to create his own Phil Connors, totally believable in all his selfishness, arrogance, sarcasm, and eventual earnest repentance. The journey Karl acts out is nothing short of mesmerising, he pulsates an essence of life that is palpable even up to the very gods of the auditorium as he traverses the entire spectrum of human emotion. Phil’s personal progression never feels forced (a testament to Rubin’s impeccable pacing) while Karl has the charisma and effortless comic timing to pull off the wise-cracking digs without alienating us; he’s an ‘asshole’, but strangely likable. As Phil says to Rita, ‘you don’t know how deep my shallowness goes’, it sums up both the role and performance as Karl deftly presents an outward sheen and bravado that conceals a deeper density of character.
In the wrong hands the moralising plot of Groundhog Day could be unpalatably sickly, especially when enriched with music. However, Warchus’ production is glowing, but never garish; spikey, but never cruel; and heartfelt, but never schmaltzy. A mature musical that is so confident and rounded that it already seems a modern classic of the genre, it is the best new British musical since, well, Matilda. And if you ever wanted to see a groundhog playing the drums – your wish is granted!
I would like to see a further life for the show in London and hope that the Old Vic run is not only some large pre-New York try-out. However, I hope its planned Broadway transfer goes ahead and reaps the Tony Awards it deserves.