Groundhog Day: The Musical - Princess Theatre (VIC)
Presented by GWB Entertainment & Whistle Pig in association with Marriner Group, TEG & GFour Productions.
Reviewed by Caitlin A. Kearney
1st February - 7th April
Princess Theatre (Melbourne)
Tim Minchin's latest is both timely and thoroughly enjoyable, reminding us to savour the most out of each day - lest we are doomed to repeat it again, and again, and again...
The long-awaited Australian premiere of Groundhog Day The Musical arrives in cheerful triumph, with a flurry of special blue carpet, celebratory rainbow bunting, and marching band tunes on the street. We are ready for another set of award-winning Tim Minchin sounds to “visit home” for the very first time. We are ready to see how the tale of an arrogant, self-important TV weatherman magically trapped in the same twenty-four hours in small-town USA, can scratch that Broadway musical itch.
Andy Karl originated the lead role of Phil Connors on Broadway and reprised it at London’s Old Vic, and there is absolutely no doubt that bringing him to Melbourne was a clever choice. It is no mean feat to make the audience feel so safe in your hands when you barely ever leave the stage in what is essentially a character study narrative. Opposite him, powerhouse Elise McCann - who, inexplicably, seems somehow more impressive with every new role- is showcased beautifully here, undeniably the vocal jewel in the show’s crown. Their chemistry is delicious, and they are proudly supported by a relentlessly energetic ensemble who have possibly the hardest task at all- repeating moments over and over with occasional musical and dramatic tweaks that range from quite subtle to major depending on Phil’s choices. The set that they manipulate to help transform our view of the scenes is nothing short of adorable, evoking the exact wholesome, postcard landscapes you would hope for.
The Australian production of Tim Minchin's Groundhog Day. Images by Jeff Busby.
Groundhog Day is an unusual adaptation in that it has been written, twenty-five years later, by the creator of the original, much-loved film (Danny Rubin). It is such fun to watch this iteration stay lovingly faithful to the first whilst simultaneously veering cheekily away from the more family-friendly version of Phil Connors to give us something different- this guy is for the adults. Musically speaking, the unmistakable syncopated cadence of a Minchin vocal line is immediately there from the very first number- you can almost hear him singing the demo track if you listen hard enough. I am, numerous times throughout the performance, gripped by nostalgia for all the time I spent working front of house on Matilda at the Sydney Lyric almost a decade ago.
Nothing in Groundhog Day’s score too sharply resembles the Roald Dahl adaptation- thus far Minchin doesn’t seem to so overtly recycle his own material in the way of some very well-known film composers- more that a ballad can be uplifting or moving without being cloyingly sentimental, or that something you’ll no doubt be humming later on has no need to signpost itself to you as “the big number”. The music serves the story, not the other way around. The exception to this is an odd moment in which a minor character named Nancy (Ashleigh Rubenach) sings for a few minutes (“Playing Nancy”) about being self-aware of her limiting, misogynistic role in someone else’s story. This later evolves into absolutely nothing, either proving a point or rendering it meaningless depending on your point of view.
There is a dazzling number- “Hope”- that plays shortly after the commencement of the second act, in which a good deal of theatre magic is used to show Phil attempting end his hellish situation in a range of different ways whilst singing ostensibly uplifting lyrics about never giving up on finally making his suffering end - the dark humour of this is furthered successfully by hammy eighties instrumentation and vocal expression. Some time following this, it occurs to me how unwittingly different our relationship with a story like this must be now that we are on the other side of multiple pandemic lockdowns. I recall berating myself at the end of 2020 (in a more aggressive version of the number “If I Had My Time Again”) for how much I could have achieved- could have enjoyed- if I had simply decided to stop being depressed about the circumstances and done the ol’ pull myself up by the bootstraps.
Elise McCann is showcased beautifully here, undeniably the vocal jewel in the show’s crown.
The key obstacle that Phil shares with 2020 society in the story is the inability to know when things will finally begin to change, as well as the certain belief that things simply cannot improve until that change takes place. The programme for the show provides us with the suggestion that Phil was trapped in February 2nd for about thirty years, and I imagine that if (heaven forfend) we were locked down for thirty years, human nature would do what it does and we would, as a collective, adapt to that set of circumstances and take advantage of it.
I am not sure there will ever be a time when a message about savouring the moment will lose relevance- nor, indeed, a message about ultimately bettering your own life in the genuinely unselfish pursuit to improve the lives of others. It’s not actually a difficult sell at the heart, but I have no doubt that it has taken on new meaning since it was first staged. As the satisfied audience spills out onto the street, delighting in the foam machines set up to snow on us in the mild Melbourne night, life really does seem too short- or too long, as it were- to be too exasperated that this run opened on February 1st, the day before Groundhog Day.
Andy Karl. Phil Connors
Elise McCann. Rita Hanson
Afua Adjei Ensemble (Debbie)
Grant Almirall Ensemble
Kaya Byrne. Ensemble (Larry)
Kate Cole. Ensemble (Piano Teacher)
Rachel Cole. Swing
Benjamin Colley. Swing
Andrew Coshan. Ensemble (Billy)
Andrew Dunne. Ensemble (Buster)
Madison Green. Swing
Matthew Hamilton. Ensemble (Sheriff)
Matt Hourigan. Swing
Michael Lindner Ensemble (Jenson)
Etuate Lutui. Ensemble (Deputy)
Conor Neylon. Ensemble (Gus)
Ashleigh Rubenach. Ensemble (Nancy)
Jacob Steen. Ensemble (Fred)
Connor Sweeney Ensemble (Ralph)
Alison Whyte. Ensemble (Mrs Lancaster)
Tim Wright. Ensemble (Ned Ryerson)
Kate Yaxley. Ensemble (Joelle)
DANNY RUBIN. Book
TIM MINCHIN. Music & Lyrics
MATTHEW WARCHUS. Developed & Directed
LIZZI GEE Choreography
ROB HOWELL. Set & Costume
CHRISTOPHER NIGHTINGALE. Orchestration, Additional Music & Musical Supervisor
HUGH VANSTONE. Lighting
SIMON BAKER. Sound
PAUL KIEVE. Illusions
ANDRZEJ GOULDING. Video & Animation
FINN CALDWELL. Additional Movement