Groundhog Day: The Musical | Steve Bennett reports back on a preview performance © Manuel Harlan

Groundhog Day: The Musical

Steve Bennett reports back on a preview performance

The musical version of Groundhog Day, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, began previews at London’s Old Vic Theatre last week, although its first night is not until August 16, when of course all true arts fans should be at the Edinburgh Fringe. Too curious to wait, I took a sneak peak - though I won’t flaunt protocol with a full review.

But what to expect? Well, without giving too much away, it starts with TV meteorologist Phil Connors recording several takes of a promotional teaser for his forthcoming broadcast from Groundhog Day, the folksy ceremony when a rodent emerging from his burrow is said to predict the next six weeks’ weather. The repeated attempts at the same task foreshadow the show’s premise.

For once in the Pennsylvanian backwater of Punxsutawney, which Connors hates for its small-town ways, the arrogant, brash presenter is doomed to re-live the same day time and again. This much you probably know: every morning, he is awoken by the same blaring alarm (but not the strains of I Got You Babe, as in Harold Ramis’s 1993 movie) in the same boring B&B with the same appalling coffee. He meets the same people, who do the same things, stuck in a time loop, and it drives him insane.

As the day is perpetually re-enacted, the first few scenes are a tightly-choreographed blur of actors and moving sets. The stage is an old-school revolving one on steroids, wheels within wheels like a Spirograph, no doubt making it hard for the thespians to follow that second rule of acting and not bump into the scenery.

It’s a playful way to set up the premise, with music to match, though you would be hard-pressed to spot a particularly Minchinesque touch in these early moments.

However, all that changes with a scene in which Phil seeks help in case his daily do-over is the result of some ailment, physical or psychological. The witty takedown of quackery - which mischievously rhymes ‘medicine cupboard’ with ‘L Ron Hubbard’ – is pure Minchin. Another nice touch is to thrust an incidental character into the spotlight to open the second half, reflecting more contemporary concerns. 

Impish wit suffuses all the lyrics, often with a nod to prosaic real life compared to the fantasy we are watching – while the very premise of Groundhog Day is one massive callback that allows musical themes to be repeated with satisfying resonance.

Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay as well as the book for this, has kept the basic framework intact, though with shifting emphasis. Once realising his situation, Phil starts acting recklessly, even suicidally, knowing the reset button will be pressed with no consequences, Some skilful stagecraft is deployed to recreate some of the more cinematic moments for the theatre. For a big-budget production, it’s solutions to some of these problems are relatively low-tech, which adds to its charm.

Connors is played by Andy Karl, little known here although he has a longstanding track record in American musical theatre including Legally Blonde, 9 to 5, and Wicked, which may stand him in good stead when Groundhog Day transfers to Broadway. That had been due to happen early next year, although a reported parting of ways between New York producer Scott Rudin and director Matthew Warchus, also artistic director of the Old Vic and mastermind behind Minchin’s previous musical hit, Matilda, has put a question mark over the US production, which was set to have an eye-watering $16.5million budget,

There’s a heck of a lot on his shoulders, but Karl certainly has the skill to carry the show and the charm needed to make Connors likeable, just as original star Bill Murray did. Initially a Grade A jerk, he’s subsequently a bit creepy as he tries to seduce producer Rita Hanson (Carlyss Peer taking Andie MacDowell’s place) by learning her background and likes, like some sleazy pick-up artist. But it’s no spoiler to say romance blossoms once Connors learns to be a more generous man, putting the needs of others first – a trajectory said to have parallels with the Buddhist path to enlightenment. And there’s really not much else to say about Rita, who remains primarily a prize for Phil to win, a few attempts to flesh her out to be a real person notwithstanding.

Yet it would take a hard heart not to melt when the pair do finally hook up for realsies, which they do to the beautifully touching ballad Seeing You, a track which Minchin has previously performed on TV and at gigs (see below). 

It will soon be a cliche to say it: but this is a Groundhog Day you’ll be happy to relive time and again.

Review date: 25 Jul 2016
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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