Groundhog Day review – Tim Minchin's musical is fantastically witty

Old Vic, London
The team behind Matilda the Musical reunite for a clever, eye-catching show based on the Bill Murray movie

Musicals based on hit movies are two-a-penny, but this one comes with an exceptional pedigree. Not only is the book written by Danny Rubin, who scripted the original 1993 film. With Tim Minchin as composer and lyricist, Matthew Warchus as director and Peter Darling as choreographer, the show also reunites the team behind Matilda the Musical. The result is fantastically smart, clever and witty, but I have to say it left my heart untouched.

The big question is what the musical can add to the movie, especially since Rubin’s book adheres closely to the film. Once again, we see an arrogant weatherman, Phil Connors, reluctantly travelling to Punxsutawney to report the annual groundhog day ceremony. Hicksville, however, turns into a form of purgatory when Phil finds himself trapped in a time loop where it is always 2 February. Initial hysteria yields to hedonism as Phil realises that if there is no tomorrow he can do whatever he likes today. Slowly, he grasps that his one hope to escape lies through self-improvement and forging a real relationship with his producer, Rita.

The extra ingredient supplied by the musical is a dynamic theatricality. Countless dramatists, including Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill and Alan Ayckbourn, have exploited the possibilities of repetition, and Warchus’s production plays extravagant variations on the theme. “There’s nothing more depressing than small-town USA,” sings Phil, and it is genuinely funny to see him daily encountering the same marching bands, buttonholing locals and ugly wallpaper. Rob Howell has designed an ingenious set, in which a vista of Identikit villas opens up to reveal a dingy boardinghouse bedroom. Paul Kieve adds to the theatricality with excellent illusions. My favourite shows Phil apparently electrocuting himself in a bath only to pop up seconds later in his familiar bed.

Minchin’s songs breezily add to the satire on small-town life. At one point, as he finds himself undergoing humiliating hospital tests, Phil cries: “Who needs enemas with friends like this?” But the action, especially in the first half, is so fast and furious that the songs have little room to breathe. When things slow down, the numbers, with titles such as Hope and If I Had My Time Again, become amiably generic. It’s a score that serves the plot perfectly, but it’s not exactly one you ache to hear again.

Andy Karl and Carlyss Peer in Groundhog Day.
‘Hicks and magical beavers’ … Andy Karl and Carlyss Peer in Groundhog Day. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

If, however, one thought Bill Murray in the movie was an impossible act to follow, one reckoned without Broadway star Andy Karl who plays Phil. Karl exudes all the self-regard of the minor TV star and sneering contempt for a town of “hicks and magical beavers” and, even more than Murray, endows the man with a sexual swagger: escaping from an orgy clad in little but a Vicuña maxi-coat, he greets Rita as if this were the most natural thing in the world. Karl strikes me as the natural successor to Broadway’s Kevin Kline in that he has the capacity to be physically dashing and funny at the same time. Carlyss Peer does all she can with the less rewarding role of Rita and, in a large ensemble, Georgina Hagen as the lonesome Nancy and Andrew Langtree as an insurance-selling goofball are standouts.

As with the movie, the appeal of the musical is that it offers a redemption myth similar to that provided by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol. Its ultimate homage to the virtues of small-town life also has uncanny echoes of the recently revived Allegro by by Rodgers and Hammerstein. But while the show is high-grade fun, I enjoyed it more for its dazzling theatrical expertise than for its much thinner emotional content.

• At the Old Vic, London, until 17 September. Box office: 0844-871 7628.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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