Groundhog Day: The Musical review

Tim Minchin and Matthew Warchus reunite - after their success with Matilda - for Groundhog Day: The Musical. Our review...

You have to admire Tim Minchin’s confidence. Groundhog Day represents his second foray into creating musical theatre from much-loved stories. His previous attempt, also alongside director Matthew Warchus, was a rollicking take on Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Pleasingly, that was the kind of musical that unites adults and children in joy and admiration. It’s peppered with at least three stone-cold classic songs – in Naughty, When I Grow Up and Revolting Children – melded to great dollops of pantomime humour, and shot through with the ink black fairy tale tone the original book’s author was so famous for.

Of course, fans of Minchin’s grandiose musical comedy will know his contradictory tendencies for self-deprecation and appearances in alongside a 90-odd piece orchestra. Much of Matilda’s success lies in the fact its lyrics are unmistakably stained with his, self-effacing, insightful, iconoclastic tone. Its observations on modern parenting, self-determination and the pains of growing up proved appealing to both sides of the generation gap and marked him as a talent well beyond the world of comedy. Indeed, the musical format seemed a perfect fit for his off-kilter-yet-straight-talking sensibility, a style that would struggle to be accommodated by more conventional pop or rock formats, but seemed too keen to explore pathos and darker shades to be constrained by simple, straight comedy.

In short: like it’s lead character, Matilda is quite precocious and brilliant (scarily so, in fact)… it’s moving, but not overly precious or mawkish.

If you’re a regular reader of these pages, I’m going to skip on and assume you know Groundhog Day the film at least as well as I do, which is enough to wince every time I hear I Got You Babe by Sonny And Cher. If you don’t, please leave this review immediately and go watch it now… thank me later.

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Writer/director Harold Ramis’ classic 1993 movie is a tough, tough act to follow, but follow it Minchin and Warchus have. Their version – put together across the last six years in collaboration with the film’s other screenwriter, Danny Rubin – shows off its appreciation of life and the simple things, while never bathing in sentimentality, in much the same way the film does.

Even bereft of Bill Murray’s genius performance as weatherman Phil Connors, which sits absolutely at the heart and soul of the film, this incarnation of the tale manages to squeeze humour, and deeper philosophical beats, from a fascinating conceit – a repetitious device noted in the show’s programme to be similar to the “tropes of video games, where you fight and die again and again gradually mastering one level after another until you reach your final goal.”  

How it extracts these emotions, however, is very different to film. Barred from accessing the palette of cinematic techniques available to Ramis, Warchus et al have dipped into theatre’s own bag of tricks, as well as venturing outside the original scope of the film in delving deeper into a couple of the peripheral characters, to tell the tale. It’s a decision that keeps their take fresh and lifts a little of the pressure from Andy Karl, the actor charged with stepping into Murray’s boots – an unenviable task he tackles with aplomb. It also drives home the wish of the show that we try to look at the world with new eyes, an idea that sits at the heart of what is probably the show’s obvious standalone tune, closer Seeing You.

This deeper look at Punxsutawney’s peripheral people is vividly illustrated by two of the other standout musical moments of the production. The first is a solo spot for Georgina Hagen’s Nancy at the start of act two. Not only is her song, Being Nancy, delivered in fine fashion, it has a fair amount to say about her role in the narrative and larger points about the roles we assume for ourselves in real life.

Also worthy of note is a very poignant interjection from insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (played by Andrew Langham) and the ensemble, that perfectly compliments a piece of staging illustrating Connors’ personal development Groundhog Day by Groundhog Day, and his slowly growing understanding and acceptance of the world around him.   

Indeed, the real star is the aforementioned direction of Warchus and the set design of Rob Howell. Those who like a good metaphor will enjoy the fact that Phil’s world is being constantly put together, taken apart and then put together again by the inhabitants of the town itself, with every repetition subtly different. The loop of Phil’s life is quite brilliantly realised by multiple movable sets (guided into place by the ensemble), travellators, and three rotating stage platforms that see the cast and scenery in what often seems like constant motion around their version Punxsutawney.

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Were I a mathematician, or someone with a more than a rudimentary knowledge of geometry, I could possibly tell you what relationship the circles-within-circles that drive the onstage action have to Fibonacci numbers, an ancient mathematical sequence we’ve known about for centuries, and which is namechecked during an early song, but I’m not… so I can’t. Go do your own research.

Yet, even among the high-tech tricks and a couple of genuinely impressive onstage illusions – that appear to allow Phil to instantaneously appear back in his bed – the team has opted for some amusingly low-tech solutions at specific times. These are a welcome interjection, both for the humour they bring (the sight of a man in a groundhog suit tipping a shovel full of fake snow onto a toy TV truck will amuse me for a while yet) and for the way they willfully undercut the inherent pomposity of this big West End show experience in-waiting.

The potential for this all to have been head-in-the-hands awful was high. Apparently, Groundhog Day‘s a story that’s been touted as a musical for much of the last two decades, but that had made it no further than a couple of notable notebooks before now (Stephen Sondheim, no less, was apparently linked to it at one point). In that time, our collective love of the film and the cult of Bill Murray have grown into staples of the internet age, raising the stakes even further. However, under the watchful eye of Rubin, Warchus and Minchin Groundhog Day’s transition to the stage is extremely satisfying.

If you’re expecting to see a tribute to the comedy stylings of Murray, don’t bother. This is not that thing, and Andy Karl’s not that guy. The musical Groundhog Day is far more reflective of Minchin’s comedy than anyone else’s, it even manages to work in a musical dig at alternative therapies almost apropos of nothing, to really leave his stamp on the first act. Like Ramis and Rubin’s original script, though, it remains funny, touching, deeply philosophical, somewhat bleak but equally life-affirming. Tonally, it’s a close to perfect translation.

For fans of Tim Minchin (that’s me, then – in the interests of full disclosure) this will stand as an obvious extension of his themes and takes on the world. Matilda was that as well, but this is a far more adult offering, and we don’t expect it to become the big family day out that show is. That fact works distinctly in its favour as far as the entertainment’s concerned, though, with bawdy adult humour playing its part in getting some of the plentiful laughs.

It’s also far more evenly delivered across its two hours than Matilda, which hits highs so high, so early, that it arguably struggled to deliver a wholly satisfying second half. Groundhog Day never hits the same heights. We’d venture that this is somewhat due to it lacking a similarly innocent character at its heart. The subtlety smothering necessities of a stage production mean Karl’s portrayal of Connors takes longer to hit the despicable-but-inherently-likeable beat that Murray locks into seemingly effortlessly. Karl gets there, but it’s a more drawn out process without the cinematic shorthand of Murray’s onscreen persona.

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Nor does this have Matilda‘s black-and-white/goodies-baddies dynamic to play off emotionally. There are no children’s novel tropes here, no manifest demons to vanquish and no anthems to rally around. Rather it seeks to shine interesting lyrical lights into greyer areas of our psyche, and trade in levels of introspection that Matilda simply could not manage amongst all its admirable bombast.

Groundhog Day is a pleasingly different beast, then, with a very different soul and sound to it. In fact, a like-for-like comparison is a little unfair… like comparing Can’t Buy Me Love with A Day In The Life, perhaps (indeed, some of Christopher Nightingale’s orchestration has a definite tinge of the George Martin to it, especially as it gets more fraught and discordant). Personally, any comparison is especially difficult as Matilda is almost hard-wired into my consciousness after all this time, and comprehensively out earworms almost anything you care to mention. Maybe I’ll amend this review when I’ve listened to the Groundhog Day cast recording half as much.

Enough of the comparisons then, and on to opinions: Groundhog Day builds nicely, in terms of music and especially in terms of its staging and spectacle, to a familiar heart-warming ending. As the narrative teaches us, though, it’s the journey that matters… And this journey has plenty of lovely sights and sounds to illuminate it, making it more than worth the effort.

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