One gets the sense that Groundhog Day would fall a bit flat with a less dynamic and plastic leading actor. Andy Karl is definitely in his element as weatherman Phil Connors and his element is funny as heck. Despite a stellar supporting cast, the show hinges on a knockout performance from the leading man who sees more stage time than even Hamlet. Compared to Bill Murray’s iconic performance, Karl’s Phil is sexier, active and more pliable as befits the stage; but remarkably, whilst making the role his own, Karl also manages to maintain an ineffable Murray-ness at the core of the character.
The first act hits you like a whirlwind, a barrage music and dialogue swirling around you like snowflakes or ice skaters on Punxsutawney’s frozen lake. Fortunately, it’s a happy whirlwind, and I confess that a smile did not leave my face until the lights came up at intermission. As one would hope, everything is necessarily and impressively coordinated to evoke a believable sense of living repetition—a cyclicality that is mirrored in the multiple circular turntables navigated by the actors. Much of the dialogue occurs between characters strolling side by side seemingly moving forward but actually going nowhere, a reflection of the stagnant hell Phil experiences day after day. Act 1 successfully delivers this premise without becoming grating or tedious.
Things slow down in act 2 in an attempt to develop the emotional content of the show. Interestingly, the act opens with a ballad not by leading lady Rita (Carlyss Peer) but by the lesser role of Nancy, touchingly portrayed by Georgina Hagen. Unlike Rita, Nancy’s character is inherently dissatisfied and therefore her Groundhog Day loop is stuck on insecurity and unhappiness. In a way, this allows Nancy scope for emotional expression that is not granted to the character of Rita. Maybe unfortunately, it is necessary to the storyline that Rita’s character exist in a state of stability, waiting for Phil to catch up with her. Perhaps as a result, Peer comes across a tad lacklustre in the role—she is likeable but not fascinating.
Ned Ryerson’s (Andrew Langtree) ballad musically is a low-point for me, but any steam lost here is picked up by the lively tap number that ushers in the climax of Phil’s transformation. In general, if Tim Minchin falls short in creating uniquely standout melodies, he recovers with quirkily brilliant lyrics.
In the end, it is an absolute delight to watch Rita effortlessly fall in love with Phil as Phil falls in love life and finally embraces ‘knowing nothing’. Phil’s final day in Punxsutawney is joyful, hilarious, reflective and touching—a kind of microcosm of the show at large. Overall, the adaptation is a sparkling success, providing a highly entertaining evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Weekes Gaehl
Running 16 August 2016 – 17 September 2016
Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
The Old Vic Theatre
Tickets (£12 – £67.50) – http://www.oldvictheatre.com