Groundhog Day The Musical is fast-paced, slick and performed by an uber-talented cast led by Andy Karl as its linchpin character: egotistical TV weatherman Phil Connors.
Set in the tiny American town of Punxsutawney, the community gathers to celebrate the annual Groundhog Day on the Christian feast of Candlemas on February 2. The community watches to see Phil the groundhog peeping out of his burrow after his winter hibernation. If Phil sees his shadow, he is frightened and creeps back into his burrow, meaning that there will be yet another six weeks of winter. But if he doesn’t see his shadow, he won’t retreat, and the Punxsutawney residents know that winter is coming to an end and spring will be early this year.
It’s a tradition that has its roots in 4th century Germany, where a badger was the animal forecaster, and the proverb “If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter will have another fight”. As German settlers moved to America in future centuries, they brought their tradition with them, with a groundhog replacing the badger.
The scene is set for Phil Connors to broadcast the big event from Punxsutawney. However, Phil and his monstrous ego feel it’s all far beneath them, and in the first act he belittles everyone around him, indulges in harassment of all kinds and is basically a loathsome human being who can’t wait to escape this small town after Groundhog Day. But with the vagaries of nature and a little magic, all the roads are closed and there is no way out. And suddenly Phil is trapped in reliving Groundhog Day endlessly.
To enjoy the musical, it’s important to understand the background, otherwise the first Act can seem irritating, as we watch the same interactions played over and over again, with Phil displaying the worst sides of his character each time. His producer, Rita (Elise McCann) tolerates his sleazy or plain stupid suggestions and always gets the better of him.
Act One does have a lot of repetition in it, but when we return for Act Two, it becomes clear that we needed everything that happened in Act One so that Act Two can bring us the redemption of Phil, as he gradually develops self-awareness, and transforms from a selfish lout to a man with genuine kindness and awareness of the feelings of others. It’s akin to the Buddhist idea of death and rebirth, and it’s heartwarming to see someone who had very few redeeming features transform himself. Therefore, the message of Groundhog Day The Musical is a very important one for humanity, clothed in bitingly funny tunes from Tim Minchin and a fine book from Danny Rubin, and astute direction from Matthew Warchus.
The technical aspects are terrific, as is the orchestra conducted by Nigel Ubrihien. Andy Karl is outstanding, and one can see why he won many awards for his character on the West End and Broadway. Elise McCann matches him as his sweet-natured but gutsy producer, and there are excellent performances in smaller roles from Alison Whyte, Kate Cole, Michael Lindner and Tim Wright. But although it relies on its principal characters of Phil Connors and Rita, it is an ensemble piece and this ensemble is superb in its singing, dancing, and acting. The music is exciting and fresh, and at its best when we hear Minchin’s glorious harmonies.
As I came to the show as a novice, I found the first half irritating, but the second half magical. And the second half would not have had its power without the structure and events of the first half. But don’t expect a traditional classical musical – this is a show of its own genre. So, go with an open mind, some background about Groundhog Day, and enjoy this important message of transformation from bad to good. And revel in the quality of the performances and the music.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby
Julie Houghton reviewed “Groundhog Day the Musical”, presented at the Princess Theatre on February 1, 2024.