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This review contains references that may cause self-harm or suicide.
Phil Connors is the protagonist of Groundhog Day – both in the original 1993 film and in the musical theatre version – is condemned to live the same day over and over again until he learns some fundamental truths about himself, and figures out how he can become a better human being. But what Tim Minchin, Matthew Warchus, Peter Darling and Rob Howell have discovered is that sometimes you can set the dial to repeat, not to improve, but simply because you’ve already found a winning formula.
The multi-award winning production was created by Australian multi-hyphenate (composer/musician/actor/comedian Minchin) Darling, designer Howell, and director Warchus. Matilda the MusicalThe Roald Dahl classic that suggests you can achieve anything if you find one person who believes in you.
On the other hand their new show. Groundhog Day The MusicalIt could be argued that is the perfect post COVID musical. If you’re a fan, you might enjoy the following. Come From AwayIt was the perfect musical for the post-September 11th era, with its message on the importance to open your hearts (and homes) to strangers. Groundhog Day The Musical Accepting and embracing your local community is key. Live in the moment. Those familiar adages “We’re all in this together” and “no one gets out of her alive” are even made explicit in the jingle repeated by life insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Tim Wright) and in his big ballad ‘Night Will Come’. Indeed, those who remember the “pester power on repeat” performance of Stephen Tobolowsky in the original non-musical film may find the extra level of pathos afforded this character one of the show’s biggest surprises.
And talking of the original film, it may be safe to assume those who love it will have two overarching questions about this version: how close is it to the original story and… how can you possibly have a Groundhog DayBill Murray without?
The first one is easy. Warchus & Minchin turned to Danny Rubin to write the book for the musical. Danny Rubin co-wrote with Harold Ramis the original screenplay. The result is as close to a stage-to-film transfer as possible.
And the second one? Murray is untouchable, with his unique blend of sardonic discontent, but the producers of this Australian version of the show have brought in Andy Karl to join a cast of mostly Australian performers.
And it’s a smart move. Karl’s real-life version of the joke Groundhog DayHis long experience in playing the role (he played it at the Old Vic, London, in 2016, winning the Olivier Award, and then on Broadway), means that he fits it like a glove. He captures it all – from the early snide cynicism and the existential dread, to the eventual awakening – with aplomb and seamless stagecraft. His ability to dress the stage again and again is impressive.
In fact the stagecraft throughout is a delight – some of the show’s absolute highlights are inventive solutions to recreating a car chase or sequences that on film would be covered with a montage. And then there’s the fabulous use of good old sleight of hand. In the second act the show isn’t afraid to tackle the much darker elements of the story, when Connors’ angst at his situation takes him to such depths he tries multiple ways to end his life.
Warchus uses clever tricks and slick bait and switch sequences to soften the blow of a topic that is not the most uplifting. These were perhaps the most popular with the audience on opening night.
There are moments that perhaps don’t work as well. Stephen Sondheim apparently wasn’t happy at having to write the ‘Have an Egg Roll’ number for Gypsy, as – delightfully droll lyrics notwithstanding – it held up the action. In Groundhog Day The Musical, Ashleigh Rubenach gets the solo, ‘Playing Nancy’, which she sings and delivers beautifully. But this reviewer couldn’t help feeling that the number has been included as an “ought to” rather than a “must”. Reminiscent of the hilarious “remember that henchmen have families and personal lives too” running gag in Austin Powers, it ticks the box of giving agency and recognition to a pretty blonde who has been used and discarded by the plot, but just like Rose’s Chinese menu recitation it also holds up the action.
The other problem is a simple fix. On first hearing at least, it’s the lyrics rather than the melodies that really hit the mark in this musical. Minchin has a wonderful way with words and his wit is what absolutely distinguishes his way with a score, but on opening night the levels were perhaps in need of adjusting, particularly for Andy Karl on ‘There Will Be Sun’ and in ‘If I Had My Time Again’. There were some lyrical jewels that were too hard to catch.
These are minor niggles. Overall, Groundhog Day The MusicalThe ebullience is overwhelming. It’s tightly choreographed, astutely directed and performed with all the vim and verve you could require. The message is both timeless and current.
Groundhog Day The MusicalPrincess Theatre, Spring Street in Melbourne
Book: Danny Rubin
Tim Minchin – Music and Lyrics
Matthew Warchus is a developer and director
Choreography: Lizzi Gee
Rob Howell: Scenic Design and Costume Design
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Christopher Nightingale: Music Supervision, Dance Arrangements and Orchestrations
Video Design: Andrzej Goulding
Campbell Young Associates – Hair, Wigs, and Makeup
Performers: Andy Karl, Elise McCann, Afua Adjei, Grant Almirall, Kaya Byrne, Kate Cole, Rachel Cole, Benjamin Colley, Andrew Coshan, Andrew Dunne, Madison Green, Matthew Hamilton, Matt Hourigan, Michael Lindner, Etuate Lutui, Conor Neylon, Ashleigh Rubenach, Jacob Steen, Connor Sweeney, Alison Whyte, Tim Wright, Kate Yaxley
Groundhog Day The MusicalThe Princess Theatre, Melbourne, opened its 13-week season on 1st February. TicketsAs low as $56