Content warning: this review contains references to self-harm and suicide.
Phil Connors, 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.
Australian multi-hyphenate (composer, musician, actor, comedian) Minchin, choreographer Darling, designer Howell and director Warchus were the creative team behind the multi award-winning Matilda the Musical, their version of the Roald Dahl charmer that suggested you can be anything at all if you can find just one person to believe in you.
On the other hand, their new show, Groundhog Day the Musical, it could be argued, is the perfect post-COVID musical. In that, if Come From Away was the perfect post 9/11 musical, with its message of the importance of opening your hearts (and your homes) to strangers, Groundhog Day the Musical is all about learning to really accept and embrace your local community. And live in the now. 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 Day without Bill Murray?
The first of these is easy. When it came to writing the book of the musical, Warchus and Minchin went to the source, Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the original screenplay with director Harold Ramis. So the result is as faithful as any film to stage transfer could be.
And the second? Murray is rightly untouchable with his own unique blend of sardonic ennui, but for this Australian iteration of the show, the producers have brought over Andy Karl to join the cast of mostly local performers.
And it’s a smart move. Jokes about Karl living his own real life version of Groundhog Day aside, his long experience of playing the role (he originated it at the Old Vic in London in 2016, winning an Olivier Award in the process, and then also played it on Broadway) means that it fits him like the proverbial glove. He captures it all – from the early snide cynicism and the existential dread, to the eventual awakening – with aplomb and seamless stagecraft. His skill at onstage dressing, again and again and again, is impressive enough on its own.
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.
Suicide may not be the cheeriest of loveable musical topics, but Warchus softens the blow by clever trickery and some very slick switch and bait sequences. The audience on opening night loved these perhaps best of all.
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 issue is an 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 clearly some lyrical gems flying around that were just too difficult to catch.
These are minor niggles, however. Overall, Groundhog Day the Musical is brimming over with ebullience. It’s tightly choreographed, astutely directed and performed with all the vim and verve you could require. And its message is both timely and timeless.
Groundhog Day the Musical, Princess Theatre, Spring Street, Melbourne
Book: Danny Rubin
Music and Lyrics: Tim Minchin
Developer and Director: Matthew Warchus
Choreography: Lizzi Gee
Scenic and Costume Design: Rob Howell
Lighting Design: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Illusions: Paul Kieve
Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Dance Arrangements: Christopher Nightingale
Video Design: Andrzej Goulding
Hair, Wigs and Make-Up: Campbell Young Associates:
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 Musical opened at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne on 1 February for a 13-week season; tickets from $56