The best thing about Groundhog Day is Andy Karl who gives a remarkable performance in a musical that, like its central character, doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be, or, if it does, hasn’t worked out how to be the best version of itself that it could be. This is no Matilda. Thanks to Karl, Groundhog Day is worth seeing but, in this form, it is not the kind of show that warrants repeating the experience.
About two-thirds of the way through the first Act of Groundhog Day, the new Tim Minchin (lyrics and music), Danny Rubin (book) and Matthew Warchus (director) musical now playing at the Old Vic, the leading lady gets a solo. It is pretty much the first time in the production that it is possible to discern the words being sung. In a new musical, even one based upon a well known film, this is undesirable to say the least.
In a broad brushstroke kind of way, what is going on in Groundhog Day will be clear to most audience members. They know the film. A jaded, frankly unlikeable, misery guts television weather presenter, Phil Connors, is trapped in Punxsutawney, where he has been sent to cover a local ceremony involving a Groundhog Day tradition – forecasting the weather by way of animal shadows – first by a blizzard, and then by a blip in time which sees him, and the whole of Punxsutawney, reliving the same day, over and over again. A Déjà vu du jour effect applies to Connors – only he realises that he is reliving the same day. The rest of Punxsutawney are oblivious to their fate.
Just by watching proceedings, this much is clear. With most musicals, the joy and point of distinction lies in the music and the lyrics. Not here. Minchin’s skill is difficult to assess in Groundhog Day because clarity is not an attribute of the production, even seven rows from the stage. Partly, this must be a sound design issue (Simon Baker); partly, it’s about Peter Darling’s choreography distracting and detracting from the lyrics; partly, it’s about Christopher Nightingale’s plain orchestrations and Alan Berry’s command of the brass and electronic music dominated orchestra; partly, it’s about the skills of the cast.
But it is also about Minchin’s lyrics and words. It is undisputed that Minchin is a genius. But even genius minds can be tested by lacklustre inspiration. The programme, egregiously, does not contain a list of musical numbers, although Warchus does there reveal that there are songs in the production with titles such as There Will Be Sun, Small Town, Stuck, Nobody Cares, One Day, Hope, If I Had My Time Again, Night Will Come and Seeing You.
With the exception of Seeing You, however, those titles do not evoke any memories of the production; one does not recognise them as obvious identifiers of particular numbers. This is not a score full of hum-hum-hummable tunes or particularly melodic ones. The sound is awkwardly fresh, but it does not beguile or enchant.
When the fusion of music and lyric is clear, predominantly in key moments in Act Two, the Minchin magic is hinted at; there are clever phrases, wry observations, interesting harmonic progressions, unexpected fragments of almost rhapsodic beauty. But far too often, the lyrics are mashed into the onstage hullabaloo, swamped by the time roundabout at Gobbler’s Knob.
Oddly, crucial moments do not take flight in song. The musical Snoopy contains at least two numbers sadly never written for Groundhog Day. One expects some variation on Don’t Be Anything Less Than Everything You Can Be just as one expects, and gets, a variation on I Know Now. There could have been a powerful ballad at the point where Connors realises that, despite all he tries, he cannot prevent the death of the Punxsutawney tramp. There could have been a great ensemble number when the various townsfolk couples find each other or a heart-string pulling duet when time resets and Connors and Carlyss Peer’s Rita realise what they have. But none of these obvious musical theatre moments comes to pass.
Which would be fine if the score was filled with better, smarter, less obvious high points. Instead, there are quirky ensemble numbers which poke fun at the folk of Punxsutawney, odd staccato monologues, some set pieces (the suicide sequence works well as does the car chase, but don’t mention the Groundhog drummer) and the occasional burst of workmanlike tunefulness.
Many of the numbers raise spectres of other musicals as Minchin’s cleverness takes flight, but there is no overall sense or shape to the music here. It is sweet, contemporary and bland; not ebullient and intoxicating. Mostly, the music does not truly progress plot or character; it doesn’t sing of Groundhog Day.
Rob Howell’s set seems cluttered and unfinished at the same time. There is a cartoon/surreal aesthetic which echoes Matilda but does not really reflect the flavour of this production. Or, rather, the flavour this production should be aiming for. The time loop glitch is a device, weird and bizarre sure, but it still needs a real world in which to work. The world Howell creates is occasionally real, but often not.
There are, however, some marvellous touches: a genuinely delightful snowstorm; a silly car chase seen from above; the constantly re-assembling Connors bedroom; Mrs Lancaster’s parlour; the magical sequence where Connors commits suicide in colourful and “how-did-they-do-that?” ways (excellent work Paul Kieve); the dance; the romantic dinner setting; and a blissful sunrise (full credit to Hugh Vanstone for evocative lighting).
Howell uses revolves to great effect, especially in the “good deeds” sequence, but there is an openness to the design which is firmly at odds with the claustrophobic feeling being trapped in one day might suggest. The sense of a pop-up book adventure is never far away – which would be fine if this version of Groundhog Day was meant strictly as a laugh fest.
But it is not. And the single biggest disappointment here is that Warchus has failed to imbue this production with any of the warmth and heart – or otherness – that Matilda had in spades. Connors, as a character, evokes little or no sympathy in Act One and, although the character fares better in Act Two, you never really want him to get with poor Rita even though you know he will.
Partly this is because the first Act comes across as very misogynistic and chauvinistic. Sections of it seem almost an ode to date rape as the more odious aspects of Connors’ character get a workout and he plays with the power his knowledge of the townsfolk’ future gives him. Partly it is because in this Groundhog Day, Connors does not really earn his reward through song and dance. Partly, it is because the role of Rita is not quite right yet on paper.
Warchus achieves a minor miracle keeping the piece moving, despite some serious longueurs in Act One which threaten to derail momentum entirely, and there is no question that he sets hard tasks for the ensemble and they rise to each and every occasion. Just finding a way to tell the story of the film, albeit adapted, on stage is a testament to Warchus’s skills.
But Groundhog Day does not hang together as a musical yet. It’s slick and efficient, but it doesn’t make your heart leap and it doesn’t come close to making one shed a tear, either of sadness or joy. As a treat, it’s more blancmange than sizzling Crêpes Suzette.
Peter Darling’s choreography seems very much a work-in-progress and it lacks the confident sparkle of finesse and imagination that Darling usually brings to musical theatre. The ensemble attack every routine with gusto and committed energy but the numbers rarely take off.
Again there is a fundamental issue at work. Is this a satire? Is it a knockabout comedy? Is it a romantic comedy? Is it surreal or naturalistic? Is it ground-breaking shockingly funny comedy? Is it funny at all? Are we meant to like the townspeople or mock them? Or should we mock Connors? Who should we care about? Is this about urban versus rural, or is it about point of view?
These questions are unanswered by Groundhog Day‘s book, music and lyrics or choreography. It is left to the skills of the actors for the cohesion, the small touches, the deft dovetailing, the core of happiness to be created.
Starting with a remarkable performance from Andy Karl, relatively unknown in the West End but a Broadway regular, his most recent outings there including the title role in Rocky The Musical and a scene-stealing turn as Kristin Chenoweth’s vain and shallow lover in On The Twentieth Century. Karl is an assured comic actor with matinee idol status; he has no trouble being funny and sexy.
Is he then, ideal casting for Connors? Sort of. Because Connors is more complicated than sexy and funny: he is essentially evil when Groundhog Day commences and has to undergo a full Saul-like conversion. Karl’s looks work against him to a degree too; he has to work harder to create the unlikeable anti-hero that is Connors and, because he is so good-looking, he gets no leeway when he uses unfair tactics to seduce people. As disadvantages go, that’s not so bad for Karl because his skills as a performer and irresistible charm more than compensate and undeniably make this Groundhog Day work as well as it does.
Karl’s performance smooths over many of the issues with the book, music and lyrics. His eyes flash with comic verve and he puts his whole body into the role, his timing, attitude and restlessness all finely judged. But, try as he might, he can’t inject heart into Groundhog Day singlehandedly.
The role of Rita Hanson is undercooked and while Peer is sweet and likeable, she does not have the shimmering lustre necessary to transform the character.
Both Peer and Georgina Hagen, who plays Nancy, the blond youngster Connors seduces and then pairs up with his cameraman, have voices with intense, powerful top notes but both need more warmth vocally. Andrew Langtree’s Ned Ryerson, the goofy but dull insurance salesman from Connors’ past, and Julie Jupp’s Mrs Lancaster are the best of the Punxsutawaney characters; odd but believable. Langtree’s revelation about Ned’s family life is the most touching of the evening (although it really shouldn’t be).
The rest of the ensemble do exactly as they are asked: they create absurd caricatures of small town life, and over the course of the production, those characters morph into more believable ones. It’s not clear whether this is meant to be because of the influence of Connors or whether it is just that at the start Connors sees them one way, as does the audience, but over time he (and the audience) comes to see them properly. The distinction is important and Warchus is surely capable of ensuring it is drawn.
You cannot knock the energy the entire company bring to what they do. And it would be churlish not to recognise that there is much that is very good in this version of Groundhog Day.
But one leaves the Old Vic feeling certain that there is more work, much more work, to do in shaping Groundhog Day before it has a commercial life on the West End or Broadway. This is an expensive night at a workshop performance, and it is Andy Karl that makes you feel like you have not been short-changed.
The reworked Half A Sixpence, now in its last performances at Chichester, is ready for a West End berth now. So is Thom Southerland’s Allegro and the recently shuttered Titanic. Not forgetting the magnificent Jesus Christ Superstar from Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.
But Groundhog Day? Not yet anyway. There needs to be more polishing of this tale of Gobbler’s Knob.