July 28, 2016
NB: The following review refers to a preview of the show.
My, my, my! What a week we are having here at Sternberg Clarke. It’s just theatre review after theatre review here at the HQ. Today we are unleashing our Groundhog Day review, which is playing at the Old Vic theatre for just ten weeks before possibly transferring to Broadway early next year. Is it a play we could see ourselves wanting to see again and again and again or did we just find the whole thing nauseatingly repetitive?
For those that don’t know the story of Groundhog Day, the popular 1993 film on which the musical is based, it concerns the frustrations of ‘celebrity’ weather man Phil Connors as he heads to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the annual Groundhog Day celebration wherein a groundhog is asked whether it sees a shadow. If the groundhog says yes (the people in charge apparently groundhogese), then, so the folklore goes, there will be six more weeks of winter. It’s not hard to see why Phil isn’t exactly thrilled to have to cover it each year. He is a man who hates small towns, hates small talk and well simply put, he appears to hate everything to do with anything. For an unexplained reason that adds to the charm of the tale, Phil is then doomed to repeat Groundhog Day again and again, his own personal version of Hell. No matter what he does, as soon as he falls asleep at the end of his most loathsome day, he will always wake up at 6am on the morning of Groundhog Day. It’s not hard to see why such a high concept idea (with Bill Murray in the lead role) was such a hit at the box office in 1993. But does this repetitive tale have a place on the stage? Won’t audiences perhaps find the affair a little boring, especially considering this is a musical… After all, once you’ve heard one song, you don’t tend to want to hear it another four or five times before the interval.
With the original writer of the film, Danny Rubin, partnering up with Matilda the Musical’s Tim Minchin, fans of the Bill Murray original needn’t worry. This is a sparkling production that makes use of an intimate set to create a small town feel. Phil Connors, played brilliantly by Andy Karl, has just the right amount of humour laced into his interactions and jibes at the public and those who enjoy such a ludicrous pastime. He is a difficult character to follow but eventually, after enough of the same days have passed, you grow to appreciate his sensibility as he grows into himself. Carlyss Peer is also very good as Rita, Phil’s sometime love interest over the course of the play. The beauty of reliving each day over and over again is that you get multiple chances at making the most of that one opportunity.
Director Matthew Warchus utilises a superb bedroom prop to great effect; it turns to reveal various other places around Punxsutawney that Phil encounters throughout his day. Fab choreography and timing! The ensemble cast are all very good in their respective roles whilst some of the scenes are endearingly inventive with a tiny weather van meandering about the stage at various moments, whilst the railroad chase is delivered both in 2D as well as 3D. It’s hard to fully explain the sequence without ruining it entirely but it’s highly imaginative and works brilliantly.
In truth, a musical is nothing without memorable songs so how does the music for Groundhog Day the Musical measure up? We enjoyed them but we aren’t humming them a week later. The more powerful songs certainly occur in the second act with supporting characters Ned and Nancy both given a chance to take a turn in the spotlight; Ned’s a is a beautiful haunting allegory on time whilst Nancy’s – although dare we say it, misplaced at the start of the second half – is a melodic ballad that deserves high praise. That’s not to say the other tunes don’t impress (their lyrics are often laugh out loud funny), but amidst a large cast, some of the momentum of the tune appears to be lost.
For all its enthusiasm and energy, it’s fair to say that some will not enjoy Groundhog Day. Perhaps they won’t find the music to be catchy enough or won’t feel it lives up to the age old tradition of the (off) West End musical. Make no mistake about it, this is a modern production, a new kind of musical and we thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. Groundhog Day the Musical is the sort of show Broadway sees a lot but that we don’t seem to attract often enough. Witty, different and bold, this is a tremendously fun night out.
Tickets are sold but you may wish to visit the Old Vic Theatre on the day of a performance in case of returns.
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By Henry Fosdike