Old Vic Theatre, London – until 17 September 2016
Well over a decade ago, Stephen Sondheim expressed some interest in turning the movie Groundhog Day into a musical. Presumably he, too, would have turned to the movie’s scriptwriter Danny Rubin for the book – it is, after all one of those iconic screenplays, as inseparable from the talents of Bill Murray as it might have been had the comedian improvised the entire shoot himself.
Actually, it’s that quality which makes Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics such a spectacularly good fit for the piece. Minchin of course invokes the twangy world of countrified small-town Americana in his music (perhaps less recognisably pastiche than it might have been in Mr S’s hands) but his words and his considerable wit have always had an element of stand-up spontaneity about them, as if they really are being thought of in the moment of delivery without regard – in the case of his song lyrics – for how awkwardly they scan, how impure or distant the rhymes sometimes are, how playful or silly the images. It’s a joy hearing them land as if they’ve picked up tunes on the way. The opening “anthem” is so unexpected. For Rubin, this “second chance” at making the material really sing is so true to the ethos of Groundhog Day that you couldn’t, as it were, make it up. He and Minchin are a match made in Punxsutawney.
So Groundhog Day is a cracker – sharp, smart, funny, big-hearted and all of a piece with every element so well integrated that it becomes almost irrelevant who is contributing what. The whole giddy enterprise bounds on to the stage of the Old Vic like it’s really relishing the insane irony of being in this theatre at all and with a feverishly talented and infectiously high-octane ensemble that are as much sharply-etched individuals as they are a community. Matthew Warchus’s direction and Rob Howell’s niftly interlocking designs make for a filmic fluency that that even an accomplished editor would be hard-pushed to achieve in the cutting rom and there is a precision to all the fabled repetitions and replays that at times quite takes the breath away. The “suicide” nightmare sequence is fabulously, irreverently, over the top with our leading man seeming to be in two or more places at once and the climactic evocation of Phil Connors’ run of good deeds is played out against a time-step in the entire community that is an idea at once so simple and brilliant that you almost don’t register how brilliant.
Ok, so Minchin’s music is for the most part in the stream of consciousness of his words and this music man welcomed the big moments towards the climax of the show where the ordinary and home-spun became visionary with trumpts and electric guitars soaring – but as I implied earlier this score is less about memorability and more about rightness. The show has a leading lady, Carlyss Peer, who is the more affecting for not being presented as or behaving like a leading lady and Andy Karl – as Phil Connors – is in every sense the real thing, an all-American anti-hero sucking us all into his recurrent nightmare and self-realisations with terrific aplomb.
A musical that wears its sophistication as lightly as Groundhog Day does is rare on the London stage and for that alone I wish it well. You may not be rushing off to buy the album (well, I won’t be) but boy do you come out humming the invention. I had the best time – and isn’t that supposed to be what it’s all about?