Imagine living your life in an endless time loop and going crazy in the process. In essence, that is what Groundhog Day: The Musical is all about. It is based on the 1993 hit movie starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, directed by Harold Ramis.
Phil Connors is an egotistical Pittsburgh TV weather presenter. He is dreading his regular trip to smalltown America, specifically to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where they celebrate Groundhog Day on February 2nd. That is when a groundhog (large squirrel) named Phil predicts whether they will face six more weeks of Winter or are rejuvenated with an early Spring.
The townsfolk, led by the Mayor, celebrate the day with a parade and slap up dinner. But a deeply cynical Connors – who is put up the night before in a quaint bed and breakfast – wants to get in and out of the place as quickly as possible.
Early on February 2nd, he is greeted by regular cameraman Larry and new producer Rita Hanson. Treating both offhandedly, he completes his segment and is intent on skedaddling. The problem is that against his expectations and forecast, there is no movement in or out of Punxsutawney, because the place is snowed in.
To make matters worse, when he awakens the next morning and the morning after and the morning after that (and so on), it is still February 2nd. Everything – and I mean everything (word for word) – is on repeat. Connors quickly slides into a dark place before he comes to realise that there is a way to make the best of a bad situation.
Developed and directed by Matthew Warchus, with book by Danny Rubin and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day: The Musical is a rolled gold winner. Minchin (Matilda: The Musical) is a genius. I am in awe of his ability to keep producing such fine material. His lyrics help propel the narrative. The musical numbers are ear pleasing and melodic.
The talent is superb. The staging is magnificent. The dancing, including a tap routine, is skillfully choreographed. And, there is surprising magic at play. Andy Karl, who played Phil Connors on Broadway and at London’s Old Vic, which won him an Olivier Award, offers up a musical theatre masterclass. He has a superb range and generates emotional resonance. He transitions from arrogant, mean, manipulative and dastardly to caring and sensitive in the space of two and a half hours, including interval.
Well aware of Connors’ bad boy reputation, Elise McCann as Rita Hanson brings sensitivity and emotional intelligence to bear. She also soars vocally. Ashleigh Rubenach leans into her role as the pretty, goodtime girl Nancy Taylor. Her solo at the start of Act II is both sad and endearing. Tim Wright captures the essence of Connors’ nerdish, now insurance salesman former classmate Ned Ryerson, who Connors couldn’t stand back in the day. The awkwardness is evident as Ryerson continually bumps into Connors in Punxsutawney on February 2nd. Wright comes into his own with a moving number in the second act.
Ably supported by a strong ensemble, Groundhog Day: The Musical is a delightful journey to take. One of my favourite scenes sees a drowning Connors downing shots with a couple of local drunk hicks – Gus (Conor Neylon) and Ralph (Connor Sweeney). That happens as Connors is spiraling. While the trio is simply hilarious at the bar, the highly creative staging of what follows immediately thereafter is an undoubted highlight of the show.
I should quickly add that that is one of many highlights, including the disappearance and reappearance of Connors several times in succession after interval. What greets you as you enter the elegant Princess Theatre is an imposing set, consisting of more than 30 television screens of various sizes. Onto them are plastered images of Phil Connors presenting the weather. Make no mistake, he is the star of this show and what an unforgettable, thoroughly engaging and totally entertaining night of theatre Groundhog Day: The Musical is.
The laughs come thick and fast, and the sentiment shines through. It is slick, fanciful and fun, and is playing at Princess Theatre until 7th April, 2024.
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.