Friday 16 June 2023

Groundhog Day

 Old Vic, London

10th June, 2023, matinee

I thought the only way to better days was through tomorrow

To see a musical about being stuck in winter on the hottest day of the year seems fitting. Tim Minchin and Danny Rubin’s Olivier-award winning Groundhog Day (2016) returns to the Old Vic this summer along with its Olivier-winning star Andy Karl as self-centred weatherman Phil Connors. In a recent NY Times article looking forward to this year’s Tony Awards, Jesse Green argued that for two decades the winner of Best Musical has often been fought between the smallish, honed off-Broadway sweethearts versus blow-the-roof-off, made-for-Broadway hits. As a case in point, at Sunday evening’s ceremony Kimberly Akimbo won over this year’s blowouts Some Like It Hot and New York, New York. Groundhog Day defies such categorisation. It’s true that it has plenty of big songs, spectacle and, as you’d expect from its source material (the 1993 Hollywood comedy), it’s hilarious. But beneath that, perhaps unlike many screen-to-stage musicals, it mines complex emotions. It’s easy to bring out lazy adjectives when reviewing, but the result is a theatrical triumph: a musical about being stuck (metaphorically and otherwise), transformation, and practicing better ways to be.

It’s February 2nd and Phil Connors is once again sent to Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual tradition of a groundhog (“Is it a squirrel, is it a beaver? Kinda both but not quite either”) predicting whether the town will face six more weeks of winter or enjoy an early spring. Neither answer can deter the perpetual cheeriness of the locals. ‘Small Town, USA’ pits their small-town idealism against his big-shot cynicism. It sets the scene brilliantly and introduces us to Minchin’s lyrical dexterity (“Watercolours of bucolic vistas painted by octogenarian spinsters”). Trapped there by a snowstorm, Phil wakes up the next day (and the 10,000 following that) back on Groundhog Day. The show then follows Phil through the various stages of this nightmare: his horror of being stuck in the sticks, his joy at the realisation he faces no consequences, his depression that he’ll seemingly never escape this world, and his eventual enlightenment of how he can become the best version of himself.

The score is unmistakably Minchin: perceptive, mischievous, hilarious, subversive. In one song (‘If I Had My Time Again’) in which Rita imagines what she would do if she was in Phil’s predicament, her well-intentioned tropes and metaphors about starting afresh contrast with Phil’s blunt honesty: the line “I once masturbated seven times… in the bath… in one evening” is particularly memorable. Elsewhere, ‘Stuck’ satirises an endless line of experts practicing alternative medicine. From jaunty, upbeat numbers to melodies that just bathe over you, Minchin also goes deeper and darker than most dare. Tormented by this “everlasting farcical disaster”, ‘Hope’ sees Phil commit suicide multiple times. It’s a superb gravelly rock ballad filled with pathos and also a perfect theatrical metaphor. Its staging also features brilliant illusions by Paul Kieve.

Danny Rubin’s book and Minchin’s score marry well together. At times, there are whole scenes within songs, the music advancing both plot and character. In ‘One Day’, we see Rita (Tanisha Spring, brilliant) long for her dream man whilst Phil repeatedly fails to woo her. Karl is just as mesmerising as he was in 2016, arrogant yet likeable as he traverses the entire spectrum of human emotion. Each ensemble character is drawn with care and portrayed in detail too. In the second act’s opening number ‘Being Nancy’, Eve Norris explores the inner life of a character written solely to be Phil’s collateral. Yet it’s dramaturgically fitting that the moments when he’s being honest and enjoying the moment produce the purest, simplest songs (‘Everything About You’ and ‘Seeing You’). There’s a brilliant line ‘Everything About You’ where Phil sings “if you knew how deep my shallowness goes you’d be shocked”. It sums up an outward sheen and bravado that conceals a deeper density of character. And the humble power ‘Seeing You’ yields is immense. As the music swells, and the ensemble embrace the snow, it’s exhilarating, euphoric, and brilliantly satisfying.

Matthew Warchus’ production is like a rollercoaster as February 2nd is acted out again and again in increasing speed. Rob Howell’s colourful design features marching bands with Gobbler’s Knob banners and a groundhog on a drumkit. And in the rockabilly infused ‘Nobody Cares’, stop signs and houses fly across the stage as the police chase Phil down some train tracks. His design has been simplified from its first iterance. Notably, the complex concentric circles revolve has gone. While I miss some of this original staging, it hopefully makes touring the show much easier (fingers crossed) and liberates Warchus' staging. Other than that, the show remains much the same as it was in 2016. Eagle-eared fans may spot “My doctor said one day my heart will stop beatin’ unless I cut down on that cheesin’” replacing the previous rhyme of “tickin’” and “chicken”.

A whimsical study of inertia, Groundhog Day is a transcendental journey through human morality in all its splendour, despondent lows and incandescent highs. Bring out the superlatives and the expletives, Groundhog Day is a five-star hit! I hope we don’t have to wait another seven years before we can see it again.

Groundhog Day plays at the Old Vic until 19th August. For further information, please visit

Andy Karl and the company of Groundhog Day. Credit: Manuel Harlan

No comments:

Post a Comment