Groundhog Day the Musical

2024 Melbourne Season Review

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When Tim Minchin hosted several concerts following his return to Australia in the latter part of the 2010s, including the opening of the HOTA Amphitheatre opening and his BACK tour – while he would typically talk about but not perform any song from Matilda the Musical, which was very popular at the time, he instead favoured a song he wrote for the second major musical project he was involved with, Groundhog Day the Musical. It was the musical’s ending number, ‘Seeing You’, and although a beautiful song, as someone who had not seen film or musical at that point, it was a little unusual why that would be his showcase song of the musical as it was very different from the linguistically sophisticated and heavier tuned songs he is arguably most well known for in my opinion. However, this week, I took myself down to Victoria to see Groundhog Day the Musical, which is nearing the end of its Australian season, being held exclusively at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre. Upon watching, I 100% get why this was the case, with the musical being a complex, enriching and challenging journey, and the journey leading to that number I had heard multiple times, seeing it unravel in many ways.

Groundhog Day the Musical is a somewhat faithful adaptation of the 1993 film, featuring music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, a book by the film’s original screenwriter, Danny Rubin, and direction by Matthew Marchus. Set against the backdrop of the real-life rural town of Punxsutawney and the real-life event of Groundhog Day, the story follows popular weatherman Phil Connors, who loathingly finds himself reporting on this event, and goes about the day with a disdain for it. Then the next day and the next day happens. Only, they are the same day, 2 February, on a loop. The film’s famous ‘time loop’ is in effect, and there is no clear way of escaping it. Most of the two-act musical involves the different ways that Phil navigates the same day over and over again, starting from confusion and moving to alcoholism, romantic conquest and suicidal depression, until something clicks, something that may see him become a better person and maybe even end the loop for good.

Groundhog Day the Musical 1
Image Credit: Jeff Busby

The storyline of Groundhog Day the Musical is clever, much as you would expect, given the people at the helm of it. This is not based only on their working within the foundations provided by its source material, but how they adapted and utilised the unique elements of it being a stage production to their advantage. The key music of ‘2 February’ is catchy and versatile enough to be used on multiple occasions, without ever making these scenes feel overused, and the standard progression of ‘key events’ is laid out so that by Day 3, audience members have a consistent frame of reference to keep track of the small changes in Connor’s actions, as they repeat the events again, and again and again. But while there is a loop, they don’t lean too hard into the key events and instead lean more heavily into the elements that make each day in the loop unique – from a memorable trip to visit Punxsutawney’s many uh…. pseudoscientific experts, to Connor’s enjoying the company of the town’s drunkard and, more importantly, we see Phil Connors develop as a person while stuck in a loop that many of us would have likely gone insane in. We see the dark times, we see the times when he breaks down and is sometimes thrown a lifeline, and ultimately the lengths he will go to save not only himself but embrace the people and town of Punxsutawney. Without spoiling too much of what takes place, it is a fitting story that is suitably paced, has many gems to pick up on through the actions of the characters, and many genuine laugh-out-loud moments and cheer-worthy moments to balance against the serious, dramatic tones.

With Tim Minchin at the helm of the music and lyrics, he has crafted a creative soundtrack that truly plays to the themes of not only the narrative but also, more than Matilda, to this own music style which provides linguistic complexity, catchiness and commentary on matters (including the hilarious ‘Stuck’ which feels like a love-letter to Minchin’s earlier works). But while there are songs designed to set the tone of the loops passing (Eg. Day One, Day Two, Day Three) or get some genuine laughs and stagecraft in (Eg. Nobody Cares), there are many songs that effectively get audience members invested and emotional, and help carry the narrative well, such as If I Had My Time Again and the not-so hopeful song Hope. Granted, it complements an equally clever book, but the songs are all perfectly conceptualised for the musical, and are peak Minchin. My only minor qualm is the inclusion of the song Playing Nancy. While it was a good song, and gave the character of Nancy some much-needed development, its location in the show came at a very odd moment, with her character having virtually no major role after the song and would have been more valuable in the first act – at least in my opinion.

Groundhog Day the Musical 2
Image Credit: Jeff Busby

With many musicals nowadays, sets tend to be big, flashy and with lots of moving parts and special effects. Given the rural, winter-laden locale of Punxsutawney, they managed to forgo a lot of what many musicals offer and instead transport patrons to such a world. The set designs are very reminiscent of Matilda the Musical, where outside of a few major set pieces from the ceiling such as the television screens used for pre-show and interval, and a cool-looking but slightly macabre mechanical clock representing the moon, many of the set pieces are typically brought onto set quickly from the wings, at the cue of the stage dimming between scenes, and are all lovely, versatile pieces that perfectly capture the mood and location. This is not to say they didn’t have fun with it. Again without spoiling too much, the changing perspectives of Nobody Cares was incredibly clever, while the movements and staging tricks used in Hope were well implemented and not easy to catch.

We can talk about everything the creatives put into Groundhog Day the Musical, but ultimately the success of any show rides on the performers that bring the story to life many times each week. At the helm, the Australian producers brought in Andy Karl, who was not only the original actor behind Phil Connors in the musical’s London debut in 2016 but has consistently filled the role during both the Broadway season in 2017 and last year’s London revival. While Connors might get exhausted from Groundhog Day’ing so much, after almost a decade in the shoes of the character, Karl suits the role perfectly, bringing the perfect amount of snarkiness and genuine character to the role, while also giving the impression he is still loving being in the role. Opposite to him in the role of Rita Hanson is Elise McCann, whom many theatre-goers will recognise as having performed Miss Honey in Matilda the Musical’s Australian tour. She is equally amazing in this role, serving as an indomitable wall to Connors, but also carrying the warm and caring qualities that help ground him – with the relationship between the two being a B-Plot throughout the show. The on-screen rapport the two have with each other is evident, and they work so well together. While these two are the lead characters, the casting of Groundhog Day features a nicely sized cast of principal, secondary and ensemble cast members, a consistently talented and diverse cast who do their roles and ultimately, the musical as a whole, justice.

Groundhog Day the Musical 3
Image Credit: Jeff Busby

It was a fabulous opportunity to have Groundhog Day the Musical finally performed in Australia, and a major coup for Melbourne and Victoria as a whole to receive it as an exclusive to the state, much like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was, which also called the Princess Theatre and Melbourne home between 2019 and 2023. While a win for some, it is a shame for others unable to make it down to the city for its 13-week run, as there is a big question mark on when or even if a proper national tour will run in the coming years. The decision is understandable given the musical’s performance in other countries, despite apparent high sentiment among theater-goers, but here’s hoping that we see more Groundhog Day the Musical across Australia in the future – either through a full Australian tour OR with an expansion of the licensing rights beyond North America.

Groundhog Day the Musical is a refreshing palette cleanser from the bigger, flashier Broadway musicals we have seen on stages in both Melbourne and touring across Australia in recent years. It reflects a strong-quality off-broadway style of production, a darker-toned comedy/drama with strong production values, some incredible music, and some clever ideas and design choices that had, at least myself, in equal parts laughing, cheering, emotionally moved and invested in what was taking place. Sadly there isn’t much more time until Groundhog Day the Musical leaves Australia, but if you find yourself in Melbourne before or on 20 April 2024, I would personally put this at the top of my list of shows to see.

4.5

Ticketing Information for Groundhog Day the Musical can be found on the show’s official website. The musical will be performed Tuesday-Sunday at the Princess Theatre, Melbourne until its closing performance on Saturday 20 April 2024.

Groundhog Day the Musical is being produced in Australia by GWB Entertainment. It is a Whistle Pig production originally produced in partnership with The Old Vic in London.

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