A CHRISTMAS CAROL COMES WRAPPED AS A GROUNDHOG
The team behind Matilda the Musical bring a clever, eye-catching Musical based on the Bill Murray classic movie
The first professional regional production of GROUNDHOGS DAY. The musical premiered this month at the San Francisco Playhouse. The date February 2nd lives on stage through January 18th. Local favorite Ryan Drummond is in the role of Phil, the TV Weather Man that Bill Murray played in the 1993 film. Phil Connors is stuck in a twilight zone loop in a small town in Pennsylvania in this musical adaptation favorite, with songs by Tim Minchin and a book by Danny Rubin who also wrote the film. Bill English Artistic Director of the SFPH says he is a huge fan of the film GROUNDHOG DAY and compares Phil to Scrooge “it is a myth of Sisyphus with a happy ending; a story of redemption similar to A CHRISTMAS CAROL.”
Directed by the terrific Susi Damilano, she brings a cast of 19 who spend most of the time on stage repeating each scene until Phil gets his life right. The keen company opens the story with “There Will Be Sun” that introduces the small town and a pop filled score that moves the story. The arrogant weatherman, Phil Connors, reluctantly travels to Punxsutawney to cover the annual groundhog day ceremony. But the iconic town turns into purgatory when Phil finds himself trapped in a time loop where it is always Groundhog’s day, February 2nd. As the superb Drummond sings “There’s nothing more depressing than small town USA,” it is funny to see him encountering the same marching bands, goofball locals and a man dressed as a Groundhog. The initial hysteria yields to understanding as Phil realizes that if there is no tomorrow he can do whatever he likes today. Slowly, he gets that his one hope to escape this acid loop is through self-improvement and trying a real relationship with his producer, Rita, played by the awesome Rinabeth Apostol.
Apostol shows off her ideal voice in the song “February 2nd” along with her awkward early moments with Drummond as they do many of the same scenes over and over. The concept of repetition has been explored by some of the best playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Caryl Churchill and Alan Ayckbourn and the result is always smart, clever and a witty story. Minchin’s songs add to the satire on small town life. In the song “Stuck” Phil finds himself undergoing humiliating hospital tests. Phil yells with pleasure: “Who needs enemas with friends like this”. Each time the town marching band reappears and those cymbals start clashing, we are trapped right alongside the twilight zone popping Phil in the same time warp of madness, enthusiasm and aw-shucks folksiness that reminds me of a classic Frank Cappa story.
The action in the first act, is so fast and clever, the songs are full throttle and fun. The numbers “Hope” and “If I Had My Time Again” become eye candy with Nicole Helfers clever choreography. The score serves the plot perfectly, but not one you always want to see over and over again. I was not looking forward to seeing some of the same shticks play more than once in this two and a half hour, two act musical. Demilano uses Edward T Morris’ turntable effectively and each scene moves into place for the constant repetition. Abra Berman’s costumes are eye candy, including the colorful winter scarfs and Phil’s colorful winter caps. The small town life of Punxsutawney literally bites him in the ass as he wakes up on assignment there each morning to rediscover it's Feb. 2 all over again.
Morris has designed a fluid set in which the vista only goes as far as a backyard fence with the town in the distance. The turntable stage is perfect to keep this show about time standing still. The rustic boarding house bedroom looks dapper and Prop master Jacquekyn Scott and Projections designer Teddy Hulsker add to the fun with excellent illusions. With hand props from police guns to drinkable coffee that continues to play over and over. Phil flips and turns finding himself in a bath only to pop up seconds later in his familiar B&B bed. Music Director Dave Dobrusky has a 14 member off stage band that brings the pop 23 songs full force ending with the banner company song “Dawn”. Lighting designer York Kennedy brings a bright look to the many down stage scenes especially in Phil’s nightmare B&B bedroom. Fight director Zoe Swenson Graham coordinated some great action scenes.
Drummond exudes all the ego pop of the local TV star and contempt for a town of “hicks and magical beavers”. Bill Murray originally gave the role a sexual swagger and Drummond exceeds that: as he greets Rita and creates the most natural thing in the world. Apostol does well in the role of Rita. The large ensemble shines with skilled performances that fill out the story. The super Sofia Introna plays the lonesome Nancy and the dapper Dean Linard is an insurance man and an old nerdy school acquaintance. Linard proves his keen voice in his solo "Night Will Come," the insurance salesman is an object of Phil's madness until the weatherman stops to consider life has other doors.
Other standouts include the flawless Scott Taylor Cole as Larry and Gus and the gifted Anthony Rollin Mullens as the Sheriff who never misses a moment to drop his gun and Phil's piano teacher the super Kathryn Hannah. It was also fun to hear two local broadcast personalities play the morning radio voices Alice 97.3 Sarah and Vinnie are perfect as the wake up team that brings Phil back to February 2nd time and time again.
As with the movie, the appeal of the musical is that it offers a redemption myth similar to Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol and Frank Cappa’s A Wonderful Life. This is an ultimate homage to icon small town life. This musical is about a guy going nowhere for a long time into a madly pop journey of change. The story is high end fun, it is a dazzling theatrical kick for its emotional punch. Its is a great uplifting ride and an easy classic that will be added to many Theatre Christmas seasons. Next up at the SFPH is TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS a play by Nia Vardalos opens Jan 28, and next summer FOLLIES opens July 1. In the meantime bring this GROUNDHOG home for the holidays.
The SF Playhouse Presents
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin
Directed by Susi Damilano
Music direction by Dave Dobrusky
Choreographer Nicole Helfer
Artistic Director Bill English
Must close Jan 18th
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2.5 hours with one intermission
Photos by Jessica Palopoli