Given the nature of Groundhog Day, it would be an easy bet to go comic with this review and play on the time loop that drives the plot of Tim Minchin’s new musical which is now playing at London’s Old Vic Theatre, but I honestly think it deserves a thoughtful appraisal that I hope reflects the way it made me feel tonight as I walked out of the theatre.
Based on the film written by Danny Rubin (who has taken on the book writing responsibilities for the musical) which starred Bill Murray and Andy McDowell, Groundhog Day is Tim Minchin’s follow up to the wonderous musical Matilda. The show is being presented at the Old Vic in the modern day version of an out-of-town tryout. What seems to have been created, at least from what I saw tonight, is as near to a perfect musical, where Minchin and his co-collaborators have once again flung accepted musical theatre formulas aside and created something very special indeed.
With a first act that spends most of its time establishing the main premise and the thoroughly dislikeable nature of its leading man, the show manages to retain a staggering pace, and keeps the audience laughing. There’s some dark stuff hidden amongst the laughs in act one, but it beautifully sets up the action in the second half when self-realisation and redemption become key themes.
Andy Karl, an American leading man bought in to play Phil Connors, is simply to die for. Karl brings Minchin’s wit to the stage in droves. As with the Trunchbull, there’s some laser-sharp diction here, and every word is heard. You can literally see the poor man melt mentally as each Groundhog Day loop progresses.
As Rita, Phil’s TV producer Carlyss Peer is perfection. Peer makes Rita engagingly complex, sharp, intelligent and warm. Rita’s interaction with Phil is nicely balanced throughout, and her relationship with Phil at various stages in his Groundhog Day nightmare really give this show the zest that it needs to keep audiences interested.
What really elevates this show is the sensational ensemble that is constantly on the move throughout this production. It’s incredible just to watch, the precision, and the characters these talented actors bring to the stage. Some of the smaller Act Two character moments really pack a punch. There are of course standouts, none more so than Andrew Langtree as Ned Ryerson. On the surface an annoying insurance salesman, his act two arc is devastating and had me in tears.
In fact, it’s the Act Two of Groundhog Day that makes this musical so wonderful. Minchin digs deep into his characters, bringing real emotion to the surface. Everyone has doubts, and fears and Minchin finds a way to make those emotions sing, pushing every emotional response button on the way.
Director Matthew Warchus and Choreographer Peter Darling have created a production that never flags, never gets boring and is constantly giving audiences something to think about. Darling continues to conceive incredible choreography and an ensemble number in act two had his cast tapping and effortlessly gliding across the stage. Stunning!
Rob Howell’s set designs look incredibly simple with recurring motives that allow for an empty stage to be maintained throughout. Multiple non-concentric revolves keep the town of Punksatawny moving before our eyes. Combined with Hugh Vanstone’s lighting which literally has snow falling up, and the whole of the show has a mid-winter darkness to it that makes it all the more visually stimulating to watch. It also allows Paul Kieve a chance to pull off some brilliant illusions which delighted the audience.
Alan Berry’s tight musical direction and sensational band underscore this wonderful show. They key to Christopher Nightingale’s clever orchestrations is simplicity, there is a raw reality to the sound of this show that never seems over-produced. Never overpowering the vocals (kudos to Sound Designer Simon Baker), you can’t help but realise just how much this show relies on so many factors being on the money at every moment. One slip by any department and this show could be a major pile up on stage. Thankfully, these creatives are some of the best and it shows.
For a 10 week trial, this production of Groundhog Day is as good or better than many shows I have seen this year. A West-end transfer must surely be on the cards and I’m sure Andy Karl would be up for a Broadway run. Just get down to the Old Vic asap to see this stunning show. Writing and production of this calibre must be seen!
My one nod to the subject matter here is that I hope to be seeing this show again and again!