Something extraordinary has happened at the Old Vic. A much-loved, ingeniously funny and clever Hollywood film has made a triumphant theatrical rebirth – in a show that looks, on first viewing, equal to, and perhaps better than, the movie.
Director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling and Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian turned musical maestro, enjoyed a runaway success with Matilda: the Musical. But their latest venture is in a different league: sophisticated, smart and more adult in theme.
Does it provide the same quantity of standout, sing-at-home numbers that we saw in Matilda? Hard to say at first sitting – but what is clear is that Groundhog Day is as funny and as touching as you could wish, and it lands with the confidence of an instant classic.
For those not acquainted with the 1993 film, the bare-bones conceit is so simple that it could be scribbled on the back of a postcard from the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This is where, every February (true fact), thousands of people converge to see whether the resident celebrity woodchuck will detect the coming of spring, or decide that winter is going to stick around a bit longer.
Bumptious Pittsburg weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray in the screen version) is sent to cover the event, and finds the job very much beneath him. Then he gets trapped by a blizzard, marooned among the provincials he sneers at, and finds himself forced to relive the same day over and over, as if some unseen hand is hitting the replay button. The film was so successful that the phrase “groundhog day” entered the lexicon, a go-to description for feeling you’re stuck in rut.
Minchin and co, with original screenwriter Danny Rubin supplying the book, follow the film’s structure. Yet from the start, when Punxsutawney-ites gather in winter woollies, clutching sparklers to hymn a hopeful chorus, yearning for the sun, the theatrical departure points are as clear as they are exciting.
Andy Karl’s Phil is younger and better-groomed than Murray, but just as insufferable. He sing-talks to us, as he rouses himself in his B&B bedroom (a grotto-like contraption courtesy of designer Rob Howell), summing up the place in snappy, throwaway lines that have a jazz-like lilt: (“Shallow talk/ deep snow”). The set is toy-town dinky, with miniaturised houses on poles, and a festooning of whitened townscapes – to bring home the way that Phil goes on an entertaining journey from two-dimensional hog to fully rounded human.
There’s barely any let-up in the music, the movement or the scene-shifting on the revolving stage. Minchin uses repetition and sustained notes as a means of deepening the levels of irony, every dab of a refrain contributing to the mood, which includes funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass and Country and Western.
Like the best stage farce, what starts slowly soon picks up speed. The lyrics are spry, ever alert to a gag, and there’s ample humour in the first half, especially when a panicked Phil seeks out clueless New Age health gurus: “Usually I’d advisa ya / to try this tranquilisa”, runs one neat prescription.
Realising that his actions are free from consequences, Phil becomes a nightmare personality – trying to chase the ladies, above all his likeable, kindly location producer, Rita (here a sensational Carlyss Peer). But his bid to refine his seduction techniques results in a full-blown existential crisis. If we emerge finally – with him – in a place of hard-won serenity, it’s not before the darkest comedy and a moment when the ensemble reachs a point of wild hallucinogenic delirium in a protracted tap-dance routine.
With this beacon of hope for new musical theatre, the Old Vic is finally on an incredible roll.
Author: Dominic Cavendish