Groundhog Day: Like Before, Only Different
After a short run at The Old Vic, ‘Groundhog Day’ is heading for Broadway – another film made into a play, so what? Well, this one should get your attention because it’s been turned into a rather different form through six years of development by the brilliant Tim Minchin, book by Danny Rubin. I’ve been a fan of Minchin’s ever since I heard him read his poem ‘Storm’, animated here.
What they’ve done in the new version is start with a Proust quote, ‘The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’. The setting’s the same as the original, a small Pennsylvania town where every February they announce whether a groundhog can see its shadow and foretell the start of spring. Into this comes Phil Connors (Andy Karl) smarmy weatherman and ‘a dick’ (so described by his colleagues) to repeat his day until he learns how to reverse-engineer his life into something meaningful. It’s tailor-made for transformation into a musical play because it’s character driven.
Karl quickly blasts away the memory of Bill Murray with an energetic quick-change performance that beautifully spins through the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief, with added stages of partying-like-a-bastard, sex addiction and suicide. There’s a hilariously inventive car chase, and an orgy scene that will keep the Matilda crowd away.
Small town life is repeated-performed against a collection of little houses rearranged as blocks, horizons and even skies, everything flying apart and coming together again in an echo of Phil’s collapsing life. The staging is complex, involving travelators and turntables, while discreet video cleverly portrays the resetting of Connors’ daily clock by having the snow fall upwards. The second half darkens in tone considerably, and provides the existential spine to the story, reminding us that in the right hands seemingly lightweight material can tackle big themes.
Arguably (and it’s a matter of personal taste) Minchin’s sole weakness lies in his big upbeat ensemble pieces – it’s not his forte, so the standard requirement of an opening number somewhat defeats him, but patter songs, in particular one about medical quacktitioners, are superb and his ballads are wonderfully memorable. The music becomes more discordant as Connors’ psyche fractures, and one can only imagine what Stephen Sondheim (who was once linked with this) might have made of it.
It’s brave ending a show without a closing number, but then this is the kind of night that quietly breaks rules (sleazy lead, second half more rewarding than first, book as clever as lyrics) and repays listening to everything you hear. At least one song, ‘Seeing You’, should become a standard.
There’s something wonderfully perverse about rehearsing a show which requires its performers to repeat actions continually, and the irony isn’t lost onstage. As Rita, Carlyss Peer gets a bit more of an emancipated role than Andy MacDowell’s original, but the show is Karl’s; I can’t imagine how he manages to do his trousers up so many times in one performance – he must be miming it in his sleep. Will it be a hit in the new Disneyfied world of Broadway? It deserves to be.