Local legend Tim Minchin’s adaptation of the much-loved 1993 time-loop film finally comes to Australia, eight years after its world premiere.
Minchin, who wrote the music and lyrics, has reunited with his Matilda The Musical director Matthew Warchus, and was also joined by the film’s writer, Danny Rubin, to create Groundhog Day the Musical. It premiered in 2016 at London’s Old Vic theatre (where Warchus is Artistic Director) before heading to Broadway.
Like the film, Groundhog Day the Musical is set in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney, where crowds have long gathered on a freezing February morning to see a supposedly weather-predicting groundhog. Famous TV weatherman Phil Connors is there to report.
Arrogant and sleazy, he somehow finds himself repeating this day over and over. From confused, to hedonistic to suicidal, Phil eventually makes the most of every day, especially by connecting with the townsfolk and his fledgling producer, Rita.
Making Phil even more unlikeable than Bill Murray’s original film version pays off with a strong sense of redemption. Minchin’s songs are more clever than catchy, with quirky, witty lyrics about everything from enemas to masturbation. There are some toe-tappers, however, including hillbilly-inspired Nobody Cares for an amusingly staged car-chase scene.
Unusually, this musical is intensely focused on one character, Phil, a role that Andy Karl has made his own. Indeed he’s living his own (hopefully pleasant) Groundhog Day, having played Phil in London (including in last year’s revival season), New York and now Melbourne, and picked up an Olivier Award and Tony nomination along the way.
Karl is charismatic, funny and physically agile – including in unseen ways early in Act II, when Phil repeatedly commits suicide, only to almost instantly reappear in bed on Groundhog Day morning, singing all the while. Karl, like most of the cast, isn’t given much opportunity to show off his voice in classic musical style, because that’s not really Minchin’s thing.
The only other character given much space is Phil’s foil and eventual love interest, Rita, played by Elise McCann with likeable determination and hope. In the second act Phil’s nerdy former schoolmate Ned (Tim Wright) and pretty local girl Nancy (Ashleigh Rubenach) are fleshed out a little – most notably through the latter’s sweetly sung solo, Playing Nancy, which skewers the sexism experienced by attractive young women, and not just in small towns.
Apart from Wright and Rubenach the ensemble have fleeting roles, but everyone gives it there all – including the outrageously over-qualified Alison Whyte as Phil’s B&B host. They nail Lizzi Gee’s fun, folksy choreography, from marching band flag-waving and pompoms to tap-dancing in winter boots, with great energy and timing.
There is much to like about this musical’s other inventive, well-executed visual elements, created by the likes of illusions master Paul Kieve and scenic designer Rob Howell (who, like Warchus, is also behind the Old Vic production of A Christmas Carol seen in Melbourne recently).
The set comprises a handful of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t elements, most notably Phil’s tiny bedroom in which his day resets. That fabulous car chase is partly executed using models of houses and cars wielded by the unseen cast, while Karl miraculously popping up again and again in the suicide scene is a wonder of trapdoors, revolves and lighting. Projections – particularly of snow falling down as well as up – also make this less-is-more approach work well.
Groundhog Day The Musical is a show about repetition, but it’s so smartly handled narratively, musically and visually that it never feels boring. In fact it’s so enjoyable you might want to see it again … and again.
Groundhog Day the Musical continues at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until 7 April.