‘Groundhog Day’: Theater Review

Director Matthew Warchus, composer Tim Minchin and the team behind ‘Matilda’ turn the much-loved Bill Murray screen comedy into a lavish stage musical.

On paper, the long-awaited musical remake of Groundhog Day has the DNA of a surefire hit. Based on the beloved 1993 movie, directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray, the show has been adapted by the same key creative team as the sensational stage smash Matilda, notably British director Matthew Warchus and Australian composer Tim Minchin. It already stands on the shoulders of two modern classics.

In reality, this $16.5 million production has had a slightly troubled birth, with early preview performances canceled for technical reasons and original lead Broadway producer Scott Rudin departing the project, citing creative differences with Warchus. Minor wobbles aside, Groundhog Day has just premiered to a rapturous reception in London, with ticket sales already brisk for its brief 10-week run. It still feels like a hit, even if rumors prove true that Rudin’s exit could delay the Broadway transfer announced for early next year.

The Bottom Line

Stormy weather backstage, but sunny skies ahead for this melodious meteorological reboot.

RELEASE DATE Sep 17, 2016

The plot is an elegantly simple, deceptively deep parable with a quasi-Buddhist message about the path to personal enlightenment (Ramis was a Buddhist). Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is a cynical, selfish, wise-cracking Pittsburgh weatherman sent to the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney on a snowy Feb. 2 to cover the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, when the eponymous little critter is fancifully invited to predict the end of winter.

Full of big-city arrogance, Phil gets his karmic punishment when he becomes trapped in a time loop, waking up every morning to relive Groundhog Day afresh in the folksy little town he despises. His initial reaction is angry disbelief, then riotous hedonism, then suicidal nihilism, before finally realizing that his toxic personality may be the real problem.

A Tony-nominated Broadway regular, Karl (On the Twentieth Century, Rocky) is more conventionally movie-star handsome than Murray, but lacks the same Zen Master levels of deadpan comic skill. His version of Phil is less world-weary and damaged, more smarmy and sexually predatory. His singing voice may be strong and his performance hearty, but Karl struggles to earn audience sympathy.

Co-starring as Rita, the TV co-worker Phil repeatedly attempts to seduce during their Punxsutawney exile, the Anglo-American Carlyss Peer holds her own well against the more experienced Karl. She also is arguably an improvement on Andie MacDowell in the movie — more sassy and less brittle, even if her character is just as thinly drawn.

Writer Danny Rubin sticks closely to the original screenplay he co-wrote with Ramis, even recycling many of the same one-liners, though he adds a few contemporary details like cellphones and selfies. But Warchus consistently tweaks the material to make it more theatrical than cinematic, deploying lo-fi methods to great effect, from hand-operated groundhog puppets to a car chase animated with model vehicles mounted on long sticks. Very inventive, and hugely charming.

Behind all this artisan simplicity, of course, lies great technical finesse, courtesy of the Matilda design team of Rob Howell (sets and costumes), Hugh Vanstone (lighting) and Simon Baker (sound). The choreography by Peter Darling — another Matilda alumnus — is balletic at times, and the stage a restlessly revolving turntable. The main bedroom set is an ingenious five-part construction that the cast dismantle and reconfigure multiple times. But as the plot becomes a series of repeated vignettes, the sheer volume of fractal loops and echoes becomes a little overwhelming. Criticizing Groundhog Day for being repetitive would be absurd, but at over two hours, the repetitions occasionally drag.

Minchin’s songs are fizzy and jazzy, but not always up there with his sardonic, self-aware, verbally virtuosic best. For consistent tone and quality, Matilda still has the edge. A scathingly satirical ditty about New Age quack doctors seems an oddly incongruous inclusion with scant dramatic relevance, and was possibly shoehorned in purely because it contains zippy lines like “who needs enemas with friends like these?” And the rousing final love ballad, “Seeing You,” feels too anodyne for the life-changing emotional rollercoaster that has gone before, its pastel-shaded platitudes more Coldplay than Cole Porter. Indeed, the entire romantic chemistry between Phil and Rita never convinces.

That said, there are enough flashes of Minchin’s musical and lyrical genius to save Groundhog Day from sliding into middlebrow banality. Inevitably, Karl gets most of the sharpest lines, dismissing Punxsutawney as “all haystacks and horses where there should be golf courses,” and warning Rita “if you knew how deep my shallowness goes you’d be shocked.” Phil’s grand set-piece number about suicidal despair, “Hope,” is excellent both musically and visually, featuring a superbly staged coup de theatre involving misdirection and lookalikes.

But perhaps the most Minchin-esque touch is “Playing Nancy,” in which ditzy small-town beauty Nancy (Georgina Hagen) archly deconstructs her assigned dramatic function as “the perky-breasted, giggly one-night stand,” a minor player in the lives of more important characters. A refreshingly bold opener for the second act, this witty ballad is a smartly self-referential commentary on sexual politics both on and offstage, like a built-in Bechdel Test. A few more similarly inspired touches might have elevated Groundhog Day from good to great, but respect is due for these gently subversive twists on the cinematic source material.

Stephen Sondheim once mooted adapting Groundhog Day into a musical, only to conclude that such a project would be tampering with perfection. Warchus, Minchin and Rubin have neither ruined nor reinvented a classic modern fairy tale, but they have given it a fresh coat of paint and a lusty new spring in its step.

Venue: Old Vic, London
Cast: Andy Karl, Carlyss Peer, Eugene McCoy, Andrew Langtree, Georgina Hagen, Julie Jupp
Director: Matthew Warchus
Book: Danny Rubin, based on the film written by Rubin and Harold Ramis
Music and lyrics: Tim Minchin
Set and costume designer: Rob Howell
Lighting Designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound designer: Simon Baker
Choreographer: Peter Darling
Orchestration, additional music and musical supervisor: Christopher Nightingale
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Video: Andrzej Goulding
Presented by Whistle Pig Productions, Columbia Live Stage, Matthew Warchus, Andre Plaszynski