Review by Suzanne Tate
Opening Night of Groundhog Day: The Musical was a highly anticipated event for me. I am a huge Tim Minchin fan and was excited to see how his satirical comedic wit and mind-blowing musical ability would transform the popular 1990s movie through the addition of his music and lyrics. The team of Minchin and Director Matthew Warchus have of course produced a highly successful musical before, with the outstanding Matilda, and they were joined by Danny Rubin, the original writer of the Groundhog Day movie who wrote the book for Groundhog Day: The Musical. My anticipation was clearly warranted as quite simply, Groundhog Day: The Musical may be one of the best musicals I have ever seen!
The lyrics and music perfectly complemented the clever script in a way that could only enhance the story. I came to this show with no prior strong attachment to the movie. I had seen and enjoyed it when it came out in 1993, but I don’t have any concrete memory of rewatching it. I certainly never owned it on video or DVD. It may quite literally be several decades since I have seen it. But like all of us, I have certainly been impacted by the movie – the title has become part of the modern vernacular that I know I have used when I’m having a day that will seemingly never end or undertaking a tedious repetitive task – we’ve all felt stuck in Groundhog Day at one time or another.
One person who must surely experience that feeling on the regular is the leading man, Andy Karl, playing Phil Connors. Karl has played the part of Phil four times, as part of the production in London’s West End twice, on Broadway and now here in our own East End. He has made the part his own and it would be intimidating to follow in his footsteps if he ever finds the repetition just too much to bear. Karl’s delivery was perfect, excelling in everything from his musical performance through to physical comedy, and providing a powerful presentation of the developing character arc as Phil experiences confusion, fun, excess, despair and eventually, kindness, empathy and love on his endlessly repeating day.
It is of course somewhat ironic that theatre performers already undergo a ground hog day experience in repeating their performance night after night, often for months. To do so with a show that contains so much repetition must be especially challenging. The entire cast are to be commended for mastering not just the repetition containing just enough changes to be confusing in the script, but also in the music and choreography. Briefly at the beginning of the show I wondered if I would get annoyed by the repetition I was expecting, especially in the marching band scene. On the contrary, the way that the music was adjust slightly in each rendition, to suit Phil’s changing mood and experiences was masterful, and meant that it never felt boring, (but I’m sure it was challenging at times to remember exactly which version they were up to).
Retaining the original writer kept a consistent style and pace to the dialogue, which matched the feeling of the original movie. Many lines remained identical such as the classic “Do you ever have Déjà vu?” “I don’t think so, but I could ask the kitchen”. Some plot lines and dialogue, however, have been updated. Modern Rita prefers the more light-hearted toast to the Groundhog, rather than to World Peace, for example. Overall, the character of Rita, played by Elise McCann, seems more relaxed and likeable than the original movie version. Rita’s changing entry in her daily journal clearly demonstrate the subtle transition in her feelings towards Phil and McCann presents her character’s changing opinion in a gradual, believable way (even while repeatedly delivering her opening line again and again with identical precision). McCann’s musical performance is also excellent.
While some of the movie scenes, like the ice carving, would probably be impossible to translate to the stage, the musical manages to retain some scenes that one would think could never be made to work. One notable example of this is the drunken drive along the train track. Every scene involving a vehicle was fantastic, and I don’t want spoil it for you, but this scene was a highlight, and the audience clapped for so long at the end of it that it held up the show for a moment. The set design and stage management were fantastic overall, with the seamless management of Phil’s return to his bed after each of his ‘untimely death’s’ also standing out and wowing the audience.
For me, it is usually the singing that I enjoy most in a musical. That is my first love. I walk out humming one of the major songs, and the CD is my most likely purchase from the merchandise store on the way out. Upon reflection however, one thing I find unique about how much I enjoyed this show, is how that was not the case (although I can’t deny, I was disappointed there was no soundtrack available). Everyone’s musical performance was excellent, but more than any show I can think of, it was the complex combination of acting, singing, dancing, comedy, movement, effects, lighting and set that make this show so incredibly memorable and impactful.
The witty dialogue and lyrics were a highlight for me, but the beautiful set, clever use of props and lighting to create visually stunning effects out of fairly low-tech equipment, and deceptively simple choreography and direction to manage the complex movement of the cast, where perfect timing was essential, all combined to create the perfect show. Leaving the theatre to find ‘snow’ descending on Spring Street from the roof of the princess theatre just maintained the magic for a bit longer.
I was clearly not the only one in the audience who felt the magic – I have never seen a standing ovation start so immediately at the end of a show, long before the principal performers appeared to take their bows. This production is running only until the 7th of April – I strongly recommend you get yourself to the Princess Theatre for an amazing theatre experience before it ends, or you will be kicking yourself!
For more details https://groundhogday.com.au/
Photo credit: Jeff Busby