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Review: Groundhog Day: The Musical at the Princess Theatre

Review by Naomi Cardwell


The arrival of Groundhog Day: The Musical in Melbourne has me nervous. Tim Minchin’s epic production about a TV weatherman with a god complex has blown in on a storm of accolades by way of London and Broadway, following the runaway success of Minchin and director Matthew Warchus’ brainchild Matilda the Musical. But musicals based on films seem like a reversal of process – a sign the Performing Arts sausage-machine has gone a bit haywire and turned back in on itself in its pursuit of new fodder. In its favour, the creative alchemy for the project includes Danny Rubin himself, the writer behind the original 1993 film starring Bill Murray, and the show’s Australian iteration features an unbelievable line-up of local talent in the cast. 


I settle in and read the pre-show warning, which has Minchin’s clever snark stamped all over it: “This show contains smoke effects, some strong language, flashing lights, a marching band and Nietzchean philosophy”. I’ve never seen German philosophers appear in content warnings, and I think it’s an excellent innovation.


In spite of its size, the Princess Theatre is cosy, with a glut of kindly, smiling and endlessly patient ushers for whom nothing is too much trouble. In place of stage curtains, an enormous bank of televisions is mounted in the proscenium on a swirling synoptic chart which indicates an oncoming storm. The face of Phil Connors (Andy Karl) beams down from every screen, all slicked-back hair and toothy smiles. Groundhog Day follows the story of the arrogant weatherman as he becomes inexplicably trapped in a loop, reliving the same day over and over. 


This day happens to be the one he abhors the most: February 2nd, when the small town of Punxsutawney gathers annually to celebrate Phil the Groundhog’s emergence, heralding the end of winter. All the local yokels want is to love the celebrity weatherman, and all Phil wants is to get the hell out of there.


Andy Karl has been imported into the Australian production from the show’s acclaimed residency at London’s Old Vic theatre and subsequent Broadway success. With an Olivier Award and a Tony nomination for his performance in this part, he’s a thoughtful and hilarious actor, embodying Phil as a kind of universal Everyman, if Everyman had been the jerk he really ought to be. It’s a thrill to see our own Elise McCann so capably match him on stage as Rita Hanson, Phil’s producer and eventual love interest. McCann’s vibrant, wholesome sweetness is the perfect foil for Phil’s slick cynicism, and her warmth lights up the theatre. 


Since 1993, the movie’s meditation on repetition has inspired academic papers, PhD theses, and considerable debate online about its darkly existential philosophy. Warchus earnestly discusses the show’s repetitions in the thoughtfully written program editorial, sampling from Aristotle and Eastern philosophies of purification of the soul, all the way to Nietzsche’s excruciating hypothetical of eternal recurrence: a thought experiment which imagines life not as a fleeting moment in time, but as a loop to be endured exactly the same way again and again. 


“I am a god,” Phil blurts out desperately at one moment, and as Nietzsche imagined, omnipotence, omniscience, and immortality are the ultimate curse. It’s harrowing to see the undoing of Phil, even undercut as it is by touching interjections by the unwitting townsfolk’s well-meaning comedy. Phil suffers years of repetition: Enough to learn to play the piano. Enough to sleep with every woman in the oblivious town (and some of the men). Enough, in a beautifully discordant montage, to resort to several futile attempts at suicide. The treatment of this dark subject matter is offset by Paul Kieve’s magnificent illusions, which dazzle us out of falling into Phil’s despair with him and temper the darkness with delight.  


It occurs to me halfway through that my disbelief hasn’t just been suspended, it’s been entirely rearranged. Groundhog Day was made to be a musical. As each repetition of February 2nd passes, Tim Minchin’s music recurs, warps, comes apart, and reconstitutes itself in new forms and ingenious musical styles. Leitmotifs - the repeating little themes scattered throughout musicals like auditory butterflies - take on monstrous shades and towering shadows in Minchin’s hands. They swell and loom massively before dashing themselves against chord progressions that resolve them back into the scale of a day in the life of the lovable middle-American town. 


Hugh Vanstone’s spectacular lighting intensifies the show’s rises and falls, pitching Phil all the way to hell and elastically snapping him back to the same fussy, quilted bedroom every morning. Words themselves give way under pressure, with one sparkling inversion by Minchin of the idiom “knights in shining armour” pitted against the image of their ladies, left at home to spend “nights in, shining armour” delivered with delicious alacrity by Elise McCann.


While Groundhog Day is a well-budgeted international hit, it’s packed with creative and sweetly homespun touches that draw the audience in and endear the show immediately. One memorable car chase scene is so brilliantly, hilariously simple that I resolve on the spot to see this show again just to relive it. Sure, there’s budget in the air - we’re treated to a lush, triple-threat cast of staggering talent, and beautifully complicated sets by Rob Howell which tell stories of their own, whirling into place as if by magic. But there’s also an aching, pulling sincerity to the production; a genuine desire in Minchin’s lyrics and Rubin’s storytelling to untangle Phil’s existential crisis and save his soul meaningfully, and with integrity. 


The cast endear us to the flawed, small-town characters fiercely, with special credit to the hilarious Andrew Coshan and Andrew Dunn as Billy and Buster, the clueless town alcoholics who chew the scenery every time they bumble into the action. Alison Whyte is a scream as frumpy, starstruck Mrs. Lancaster, and her morning appearances keep the show’s time with a strong beat. Most precious of all is Ned Ryerson, played with heartfelt sweetness by Tim Wright, whose dignity and warmth are so poignant and humbling. The entire Australian cast is witty, quick off the mark, and ingeniously literary in their delivery. I’d like to think that’s because Tim Minchin was ours first, before we lent him to his international success, and so some of his clever lyrics about an impossible time loop in a small American town were in fact written for us. 


Perhaps it’s just that Phil’s experience is so very universal. On opening night, more than half of the population of Australia had in their pockets a ticket for an unprecedented $200-million lottery draw. More than half of us, then, spent February 1st with one foot in another place, dreaming of escape and making bargains which never came through, harbouring only grudging intentions to endure our own February Seconds. Philosophy and Groundhog Day offer a unified solution for short-circuiting the nightmare of Eternal Recurrence: devote yourself to kindness, to living the kind of life you’d love to live again. As is the case with life itself, the show’s ending is predictable, but the journey we take to get there is remarkable. Groundhog Day settles like a tonic for weary souls - a joyous, heart-warming and endearing reminder of how precious life is, exactly the way it is today. 


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