Groundhog Day The Musical is exclusively playing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Tickets were provided for this review.
Groundhog Day The Musical is an enlivened stage adaptation of Harold Ramis’ much loved nineties comedy, and it’s one that mostly avoids falling into a pit of repetition that its source material could inspire. Directed by Matthew Warchus, with music and lyrics by Australia’s own Tim Minchin, this collaboration has adapted Danny Rubin’s book (of which was an adaptation of the film) to deliver a production with visionary stagecraft, lively performances, and modern wit.
After debuting in London in 2016, it proceeded to Broadway in 2017, and then back to London in 2023. Now marks Groundhog Day The Musical’s Melbourne debut. Legendary theatre performer Andy Karl, who won an Olivier Award on The West End for his performance, returns to play the iconic character Phil Connors once again for a fourth time. It would seem Karl is living out his own ‘Groundhog Day’ – his career as synonymous as Connors.
When you hear the term ‘Groundhog Day’, it’s hard not to imagine the idea of an experience or event endlessly repeating itself. It has become such a common part of the lexicon that when considering the idea of making a musical to ‘Groundhog Day’, the immediate question comes to mind: wouldn’t all the songs just be the same? Thankfully, the results couldn’t be more varied.
Groundhog Day became such a classic back in 1993 – some consider it one of the most successful comedy films ever made. The high-concept model whereby a narcissistic and arrogant weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) gets stuck reliving the same day repeatedly struck a chord in many an audience. Despite Rubin stating the story was intended without any spiritual analogy, the text has been interpreted in many ways. Phil has been seen as Jesus Christ, Nietzsche’s concept of the ‘eternal recurrence’, or even the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus; he was put into an eternal state of punishment. It’s undeniable that the theme of gaining wisdom through the act of recurring renewal is a universally felt one.
Groundhog Day The Musical sticks closely to the source material: On February 1st, Phil Connors travels to the little town of Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual ‘Groundhog Day Ceremony’. If the groundhog, also named Phil, does not see his own shadow, it is a signifier that winter will end. If the contrary occurs, winter will last another six weeks. The metaphor of the shadow is analogous with Phil’s vanity. Will he ever look outwards of himself? Or will he forever dwell in wintery self-conceit?
February 2nd rolls around and it’s the day of the ceremony. Phil meets his new producer Rita Hanson (Elise McCann) and cameraman Larry (Kaya Byrne). He begrudgingly delivers the news, finding to no surprise that the groundhog has predicted an ongoing winter. He soon bumps into an irritating old high school classmate Ned Ryerson (Tim Wright), visits a diner for lunch with Rita, and is quickly informed by the local sheriff (Matthew Hamilton) that a snowstorm has rendered every road undrivable. Phil is now stranded in a town of people he finds complete losers. When he wakes the next morning, he quickly realises he is stuck in a repeating time loop, forever living in the same day.
Andy Karl is striking, magnetic and well-oiled in the role of Phil Connors after having portrayed him for over eight years (almost becoming the time-loop afflicted fellow). He oozes charisma and hubris, owning the stage like the floorboards were placed down just for him. The musical relies on his performance to make variations of scenes the audience has already witnessed feel fresh. Minchin’s lyrics do him many favours, allowing him to sing and play the character with a mocking cynicism in the tad overlong act one, then with tender sentimentality in act two. This is a character that must go on a transformative journey from arrogant jerk to humble redeemer, and Karl makes it all effortlessly believable.
The musical numbers are all delivered with a chaotic vibrance bolstered by an eclectic fusion of rock, country, jazz, funk, and big band. While they’re not all memorable, they certainly suit the sweet yet sardonic tone the musical is working towards. The ensemble is all mostly engaging, however a few tertiary characters that are given big moments early on fall to the wayside by the production’s end; notably, local girl Nancy (Ashleigh Rubenach) sings her own ballad at the beginning of act two but is never given the spotlight again. Yes, it is mostly a two-hander between Phil and Rita, but the story almost begs for the audience to get to know more of the townspeople Phil is spending day after day with.
As Rita, Elise McCann is impressively loud and starry-eyed, playing her with a confidence that matches the seductive charm of Connors. It is amusing at first to see the way Phil navigates the ins and outs of learning and understanding Rita’s personality. He changes his act day in, day out so he can impress and seduce her, however the writing rarely gives Rita many prospects beyond the need for a man she pines for in her life. She exists purely as a romantic goal and a moral foil to Phil’s personality. While there are a lot of snarky and clever additions to the lyrics that make the production feel modern, Rita’s characterisation feels mostly stuck in the past.
Performances aside, stagecraft stands as the most impressive part of Groundhog Day The Musical thanks to the dynamic lighting and immersive stage design. As Phil reckons with living a recursive existence, he falls deeper into a pit of hedonism, leading him to live with impulsivity and recklessly. One scene sees Phil getting drunk with two locals at a bar, before they head out driving, leading to the stage to transform as a car forms around the actors. The stage swivels, amplifying their drunken state. The lights go dark and the sounds of helicopters envelope the soundscape. Models of cars zoom around the stage with the perspective shifting as if we are looking down on the characters from a bird’s eye view. Elsewhere, a comical montage of the creative ways that Phil attempts suicide plays out highlighting the creativity and technical innovation at play.
Groundhog Day The Musical is funny, entertaining, impeccably produced, and effortlessly performed. While the much-loved story is a familiar one, this adaptation sings and dances with its own voice. It is elevated by a leading man who understands every facet of Phil Connor’s personality, reminding us that there is beauty to be found in the everyday minutiae. Phil, can you see your shadow now?
Developed and Directed By: Matthew Warchus
Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin (Based on the book and film by Danny Rubin)
Cast: Andy Karl, Elise McCann, Ashleigh Rubenach
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