It’s hard to imagine the darkly comic film with Bill Murray, Groundhog Day, as a musical, even though musicals these days tend often deal with the bleaker side of human nature, at their darkest delving into criminality and murder.
The play was chosen, according to San Francisco Playhouse’s Artistic Director Bill English, because the company was seeking “a show that will work well for the holidays.” One that was not A Christmas Carol, the most iconic theatrical piece of the season. It’s perhaps a bit strange that the Dickensian classic deals with a topic similar to Groundhog Day, the cruelty of ambition and its pathological playmate, narcissism, with a protagonist (or is that an anti-hero?) who is bitterly cynical and aggressively bad-tempered.
It must be the winter weather.
The musical version of Groundhog Day opened in London in the summer of 2016, where it garnered Olivier Awards for Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical, awarded to Andy Karl who played Phil Connor, the irascible and self-centered weatherman who has a lot to learn. The following year Groundhog Day played on Broadway.
With a book by Danny Rubin, one of the original screenwriters, the play is a snappy, fast-moving and sly look at male egotism with a rather sugary ending about the ability of love to overthrow egotism and reform even the most despicable of characters. Where empathy born of fear is the game changer for Scrooge, it is love born of frustrated impulses that reforms Phil Connor.
The San Francisco Playhouse production is also snappy and fast moving. With a stage design that includes a revolving stage, allowing scenes to change seamlessly in a rapid move from day to day, scene to scene. Edward T. Morris was the scenic designer. The large cast – it is after all about Punxsutawney, PA, and American small towns as much as anything – hoofs Nicole Helfer’s choreography with vigor and precision. Director Susi Damilano and Music Director Dave Dobrusky are the other two parts of the team who have put together this engaging production, understanding the play’s need for kinetic brilliance.
In the performance I saw, Dean Linnard played Phil Connor, replacing Ryan Drummond for the evening. He captured Connor’s sour cynicism and provided a warm voice to accompany Rinabeth Apostol in her role as Rita Hanson, the savvy producer who is Connor’s nemesis and object of lust. Apostol, who first acted at the Playhouse in the brilliant comedy King of the Yees, uses her formidable energy to shape Rita’s character as a career woman with a heart of gold and a mind of steel. She has a strong voice tending toward a belter’s power and incisive delivery.
Scott Taylor-Cole put in an admirable performance as Ned Ryerson, and all the cameo roles were delivered with gusto. I couldn’t help admiring the fact that the story’s repetitions of short scenes meant that the actors were blessed with learning fewer lines, which they presented over and over. The challenge was to repeat the actions and lines in the same way each time, thereby providing a backdrop to Connor’s metamorphosis. Connor is the only one who realizes that everything is in a time loop. Getting back to linear time, where life has the potential to move forward, is therefore up to Connor, and he struggles to change.
As is the norm these days everyone is amplified and the music has an equally electronic sound. But it is in the music by Australian composer Tim Minchin, who also wrote the lyrics, that the musical veers away from the edgy darkness of the movie, losing its bite, despite the witty lyrics. There is a blandness (or is it sameness?) about the music that undercuts the pertinent message of the film.
Nonetheless, this is an entertaining adaptation. And this wonderful production, oozing with talent and presented in one of the Bay Area’s most charming small venues, is a refreshing holiday alternative to the same old same old.
Groundhog Day continues at SF Playhouse through January 18. For information and tickets, visit sfplayhouse.org.