★★★★★ Tim Minchin delivers a second helping of Matilda magic, and then some.

Old Vic, London
July 28, 2016

Matilda the Musical’s clean sweep at the Helpmann Awards this year may have amazed some, but anyone watching its triumphant progress around the world over the last six years should not have been surprised. Australian export Tim Minchin and British playwright Dennis Kelly’s adaptation, directed by Matthew Warchus, pushed just the right buttons with its hi-octane energy, successfully capturing the book’s quirky visuals and appealing to adults brought up on Roald Dahl’s idiosyncratic fairy tales and their children alike. Matilda went on to win eight Olivier Awards and five Tonys before romping home with a total of 13 Helpmanns.

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photos: Manuel Harlan

Anticipation therefore of Danny Rubin and Minchin’s adaptation of the 1993 cult film Groundhog Day, with the same creative team, was, to put it mildly, high. Was Matilda a flash in the pan? Could they do it again? How would they handle a musical for ‘grown-ups’? The answers are, in order: No, yes, and bloody brilliantly.

Before I go any further, I should point out that what I saw was a ten-days-in preview. The show that opened last night may have changed, and had I not been so bowled over I would have hesitated to write a pre-opening appraisal. However, I believe the essential excellence of Groundhog Day and its interest to Australian readers justifies this review.

The idea emerged six years ago. Warchus was a long time fan of the movie and its magical themes of good, bad, redemption and learning to be the best version of ourselves that we can be in the time we are allowed. It was then his idea to hook Minchin up with Rubin, the film’s original writer. Three years of development have led to this, a self-confessed 10-week ‘try-out’ at London’s Old Vic where Warchus is now safely installed as Artistic Director and successor to Kevin Spacey.

Andy Karl and Andrew Langtree in Groundhog Day

Sticking closely to the plot of the film, the show follows Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray in the movie), a cynical, arrogant, womanising Pittsburgh TV weatherman who, while forced to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in the hick town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself trapped in a time loop, forced to live the same day again and again. At first puzzled, then delighted that he can embrace any excess without repercussions, and subsequently suicidal – though unable to die – Connors eventually learns that there is more satisfaction in doing good. It’s a heart-warming tale and, even if you haven’t seen the film, it’s emotionally satisfying and dramatically gripping.

Warchus and his writers have worked dramaturgical wonders. Where Matilda, for all its joyous anarchy, occasionally dragged, Groundhog Day crackles with pace, zipping through its tale-telling with admirable efficiency. Minchin’s music is richer, more affectingly melodic than in his previous score, with numbers that are more likely to stay with you. And where Matilda was more of a traditional song-scene-song book musical, in Groundhog Day the music is essential to get us from moment to moment, and especially to capture the spiralling sense of the day from hell that never stops happening. Rubin’s book is tight and packed with great one-liners, but delivers the requisite emotional wallop as Connors journeys from sinner to saint.

Andy Karl and Carlyss Peer in Groundhog Day

Rob Howell’s set and costumes are a hoot. Clearly coming from the same observant brain as Matilda, it’s full of clever sleights of hand and perspectival conundrums. The slightly tacky, clapped out nature of a small town festival, an old-fashioned diner and a hokey bed and breakfast are all captured to a tee, while the tiny houses fading off into the distance for the out of town locations are quite magical. Even more spectacular is the way it all moves. As the repetitive nature of the show gets more and more out of hand, the various locations fly, revolve and break apart before our eyes, almost defying the cast to arrive in the right place in time for the next scene. The technical rehearsals – which reportedly took three weeks – must have been a blast!

American actor Andy Karl makes a superb Phil Connors, lean, mean and razor sharp with a gag, and spectacularly flawless in executing the myriad pieces of stage business. Karl, who played the lead in Rocky and was Tony nominated for the role of Bruce Granit in last year’s Broadway revival of Cy Coleman’s On the Twentieth Century is a chameleon-like actor, able to play hunk or heel. His light, attractive baritone easily encompasses Minchin’s melodic lines, and he’s tireless in a role that must get half a minute in the wings every half hour.

British actor Carlyss Peer is Karl’s hapless foil as Rita Hanson, the TV assistant producer he at first yearns to bed, only to fall gradually in love with her as time goes on (or rather, as time doesn’t go on). She gives off all the right signals, kicking back at Connors’ initial leery persona before revealing a complexly vulnerable defensiveness. Vocally she’s a safe pair of hands too, acting nicely through the voice.

The remaining cast of 18 are superb, working the flying revolve and creating a gallery of convincingly lumpy and bumpy small town winners and losers. Georgina Hagen is notable as the typecast pretty girl Nancy who gets a sweet and unexpectedly poignant solo, but it seems invidious to single out anyone when all are so hard working and convincing. The band of ten under Alan Berry is spot on and Simon Baker’s sensitive sound design never blares, ensuring text and Minchin’s idiosyncratic and savvy lyrics come over crystal clear.

It’s understood that Groundhog Day is already lined up for Broadway (though lead producer Scott Rudin withdrew in June). With what looks like another sure fire hit on their hands, let’s hope it proves speedier in travelling down under than its predecessor. Like the subject matter, Groundhog Day is a show I could sit through again… and again… and again…