Groundhog Day, Old Vic, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

There are few Hollywood films that have become so culturally engrained that they end up changing our lexicon. Groundhog Day is such a movie, its title now becoming synonymous with a sense of inescapable repetition such as that suffered by Bill Murray’s Phil Connors in the 1993 film.

Here, Andy Karl takes on the role of Connors, the cynical local weatherman who grumpily endures coverage of the real-life Groundhog Day – a ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania in which an oversized rodent is deemed to predict a longer winter if he sees his own shadow. Brash, rude and self-absorbed, somehow Connors gets stuck in a loop of the same day, and resorts to various tactics to attempt to break out.

Director Matthew Warchus has reunited with his Matilda the Musical collaborator Tim Minchin, who creates a number of songs within a book by Danny Rubin, who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay for the original film (its director and other co-writer, the late Harold Ramis, disgracefully receives no formal credit in this adaptation, despite having not an inconsiderable input into the source material).

For fans of Minchin’s work, his numbers here gravitate considerably more towards his usual, adult fare than the kid-friendly numbers of the Roald Dahl musical. They are also generally less immediately memorable – although appropriately for the work’s structure, Minchin’s melodies bear repetition well.

Karl’s take on the lead character succeeds in stepping firmly out of Bill Murray’s shadow, creating a monstrously smarmy sleaze who has just enough likability for an audience to be able to bear with him during his more odious moments.

Carlyss Peer, playing his eternally optimistic producer, Rita, becomes an effective counterpoint, although for much of the musical she is reduced to variations of the same solo number.

By the end of the show, Karl and Peer finally get the opportunity to duet, and they gel together well, as their personalities also do once Connors begins to thaw in the home-town environs of Punxsutawney.

Rob Howell’s set design, which manages to construct the bedroom in which Connors wakes morning after morning, forms, reforms and breaks apart in ways which help accentuate the repetitive nature of Connors’ days while providing enough difference to sustain interest.

The same goes for Peter Darling’s choreography, which changes in subtle ways through each iteration, while some illusions designed by Paul Kieve allow the time loop to substantially speed up as Act I reaches its climax.

While the time loop is played mainly for laughs in Act I, the tonal shifts in the original film – as Murray’s Connors moves through nihilistic despair, to acceptance, finally embracing life and love before accepting redemption – play out to far greater extremes post-interval.

The opening sequence of Act II involves Karl, and a number of ensemble members dressed as him, committing suicide in a variety of ways. It’s a bleak sequence that sits uneasily with the rest of the musical – perhaps explaining the presence of a narratively unnecessary, but beautifully sung, number by Georgina Hagen’s Nancy at the top of the act as a means of reassuring the audience as they return to their seats.

It is when Connors moves on – having been completely broken, he becomes a literal new man – that the show regains its footing and becomes the romantic, feel-good confection that brings it closer to musical theatre’s more usual romantic comedy stylings. There is room for pathos, though, especially in a moving sequence where Connors tries to find ways to prevent an old homeless man from passing away.

In the concluding sequences, Karl conveys a man who is no longer trying to play nice in an attempt to leave, but a reformed soul who, in the space of a day, becomes beloved by a small town because he genuinely loves them. And although Groundhog Day is by no means perfect, the swelling in the heart it delivers is greater than many less ambitious productions could ever muster.

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