Before watching Groundhog Day at The Old Vic, it is hard to imagine how it could be adapted into a West End Musical. However, the team behind Matilda, have created something that exceeds expectation and is perhaps even better than the highly successful 1993 film.
For those not familiar with the story, it follows an insufferably arrogant TV weather man, Phil Conners (Bill Murray in the film) who is asked to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He finds the small town unbearable, the people insufferable and the job itself very much beneath him. Awaking the following day, he finds himself in a time loop, repeating February 2nd over and over again. At first, he finds the idea of no tomorrow exciting, doing what he wants with no consequences, but the monotony soon drives him to madness. He eventually decides to change his ways, using his bizarre gift to help people, improve himself as a person and win the affections of his producer, Rita.
Director Matthew Warcus, music and lyrics man Tim Minchin and choreographer Peter Darling are the same team responsible for Matilda The Musical and their new production at the Old Vic is equally magnificent. The script is sharp, sophisticated and superbly witty. Danny Rubin, original screenwriter of the 1993 film, wrote the book for the musical, a wise move that keeps the same snappy and sarcastic dialogue central to the telling of the story. Rubin said in an interview that he hopes the audience will get an experience that’s more fulfilling than they got from watching the movie, and in my opinion, he achieved his ambition.
Andy Karl’s Phil Conners has all the sarcasm and cynicism of Bill Murray’s version, with the added charm, sex appeal and robustness of a modern day celebrity. He is endearing and magnetic in the leading role and his performance ranges from the hilarious to the heart-warming. Carlyss Peer is superb in the role of Rita, a character that’s fleshed out and has more depth than her screen counterpart. The entire ensemble captures the attitude of ‘small town USA’ brilliantly and Jack Shaloo and Andrew Spillett as the drunken idiots are certainly standouts.
Tim Minchin is rapidly emerging as a musical genius for our generation. The musical score throughout, is magnificent. The furiously fast pace of the numbers in the first half contrast very well with the heartfelt slower theme of the second. Some of the numbers perhaps feel a little generic, but that is not to say they are unenjoyable. The biggest triumphs are the lyrics. They are magnificently intelligent rhythmically, as well as being current and topical. It can sometimes be grating when characters sing-speak for lengthy periods of time, but this is not the case in this production.
Rob Howell’s set design is a masterpiece. The revolving pieces and moving floors change the environment of the scenes smoothly and there are moments of illusion that leave the audience mystified. A personal highlight is the car chase scene, where the ensemble use puppetry to portray a bird’s eye view of a dramatic chase. Each change in setting is genius, indicating the monotony of Groundhog Day, without it becoming repetitive or irksome.
Overall, Groundhog Day is a triumph. The film itself is ingeniously intelligent and hilarious, and the musical is even more so. It is impossible not to be captivated by this production. The snappy dialogue, beautiful music and exuberance of the spectacle itself, will leave you smiling from start to finish.
Groundhog Day is running at The Old Vic until September 17.
Photo by Manuel Harlan