Existential angst and toe-tapping tunes blend miraculously well in ‘Groundhog Day’, composer Tim Minchin's dazzling take on the 1993 movie. The Aussie comic is also the brains behind mega-hit musical ‘Matilda', and this show is an equivalent achievement. He's taken a much-loved but deeply cynical story and breathed all the emotional weight and heartbreak into it that a musical needs to soar.
Misanthropic, philandering weatherman Phil is pretty much the role that Bill Murray was born to play. Here, Andy Karl plays the story's anti-hero, and the compelling, slightly goofy vigour he brings to the part is enough to shake off memories of Murray’s screen performance. He's livid to find himself stuck in naff nowhere town Punxsutawney so naturally, in classic mid-’90s supernatural comedy style, he's condemned to live there indefinitely, repeating the same day over and over until he mends his ways.
There's an obvious repetition to it: in every scene Phil wakes up in the same bed, at the same time, then goes on to deliver a weather report on the same hokey ceremony (in which an obscure North American rodent is deployed to predict the start of spring). But Minchin and Danny Rubin, author of the original movie, manage it deftly here. We get repeated blasts of perky numbers ‘Punxsutawney Phil’ and ‘Small Town, USA’, which are gleeful little slices of kitsch Americana performed by a flag-waving marching band in a controlled explosion of colour. Soon, those bright reds and blues dim a little, as Phil’s depression sets in. Why is he here? Why are any of us here?
Phil spends most of its first act psychologically manipulating the town’s women into sleeping with him by memorising every detail of their lives, with his best efforts going into trying to crack the impenetrable shell his producer Rita (Tanisha Spring) has sensibly put around herself. It's hilarious in a deeply bleak way, and its gender politics feel so irredeemably ’90s that the odd references to mobile phones or the internet feel weirdly tacked on.
Still, if the first act is a slick exercise in retro and sometimes unsavoury Americana, the second act blows all that away in a snowstorm of emotion. Phil's second act number ‘Hope’ is an exhilarating change of pace, a depressive power metal solo powered by knowing lines like ‘sometimes you'll feel utterly defeated by your laces’. Director Matthew Warchus's always-thrilling staging shifts into overdrive here, with Phil magically disappearing and appearing again, tantalising us with the possibility he's escaped to another realm.
Then, redemption comes in the show's standout number ‘If I Had My Time Again’. Spring and Karl's voices blend beautifully here on this driving ballad of yearning, its witty lyrics making it a knowing older sibling to ‘When I Grow Up’ in ‘Matilda’.
Ultimately, ‘Groundhog Day’ is a surprisingly profound exploration of how to live a good life by appreciating the wonder and specialness in the everyday: Rob Howell's beautifully detailed set design seems to blossom as Phil's cynicism melts away. It feels like a snowy American echo of another Old Vic hit, ‘A Christmas Carol’ – and one that also deserves to run, and run, and run.