This one will run and run. And run. And run… Reuniting the Tony Award-winning team behind “Matilda,” “Groundhog Day” cracks open Danny Rubin’s story for the 1993 Harold Ramis film to reveal the philosophies spinning beneath its surface. What seemed, onscreen, like a slight fable about a TV weatherman stuck in a time-loop starts to look like a wise old classic. Even missing a take-home tune, the sort that sticks around for days, it’s the most cohesive musical in ages. Tim Minchin’s score is as smart as Matthew Warchus’ staging is witty.
On Rob Howell’s revolving set, Andy Karl’s egocentric weatherman Phil Connors goes round in circles. In Punxsatawney, Penn., to report on the annual Groundhog Day celebrations, Connors finds himself living the same day on a loop, the same song playing on his alarm clock, the same over-friendly faces smiling his way.
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A slicker, smugger presence than Bill Murray’s jaded cynic, Karl’s Connors is a man coasting on autopilot. He clenches his jaw in silent, smiling irritation and turns on a surface charm when the camera starts rolling. The irony is that it takes the world staying the same to shake him into the present, and, as one Feb. 2 follows another, he learns to take each day as it comes and to treat others as individuals in their own right.
Bolstered by Minchin’s music, Rubin’s book becomes far more than a simple Scrooge story. It’s not just that Phil’s tailspin from discombobulation to depression to give-a-damn nihilism is brilliantly done — Karl wheeling round like a new man each time — it’s that “Groundhog Day” pushes past its protagonist to see a bigger, fuller picture. In her numbers, his producer Rita (a sparky, savvy Carlyss Peer) seems to be stuck in a Groundhog Day of her own, hit on by a conveyor belt of inappropriate men. In fact, everyone is. The song “Hope” has the whole of Punxsatawney sing out their souls: all of them stuck in their ways, all trying to change. In giving space to their stories, “Groundhog Day” learns its own lesson.
It’s a mark of what musical theater can do. Minchin’s score almost functions like a commentary, prising Rubin’s plot open to pull out its themes. The opening number, “Tomorrow,” turns Punxsatawney’s annual rite from a whimsical curio to an enacted expression of hope, while “Small Town USA” sets the cosmopolitan Connors singing in counterpoint to a buoyant chorus. Again and again, Minchin gives ideas a musical shape. The small town’s sound is a twee time-warp tune and, as the one day repeats, reprises grow discordant and shrill. Two dive bar drunks drawl “Nobody Cares,” a country-ish drone around a repeating riff, then career off on a careless joyride as the song speeds up. Another number — Minchin to its core — spoofs the industries that peddle false hope through bogus therapies.
Clever as it is, “Groundhog Day” works through feeling. Minchin’s music surges with sentiment and wins you round to its characters. Karl, in particular, is superb. His cynicism melts away through sheer exhaustion. Peer ensures Rita isn’t a trophy to be won but a woman in charge of her own heart. Their final duet, “Seeing You,” is a gorgeous groundswell of a song.
However, it’s all very much a show: a stage, not a world. Punxsatawney’s less a place than a parade — the small town surrounds the stage like a skirting board, and teeny model cars chase one another among teeny model houses. Peter Darling’s choreography enlivens more than it enlightens, and certain scenes tend towards sketches — a byproduct of beginning over and over perhaps, but drawn out and over-used nonetheless.
Small matter, though. “Groundhog Day” is a treat, one that wrings meaning and morality at every turn.