Theater Review: GROUNDHOG DAY THE MUSICAL (San Francisco Playhouse)

by Tony Frankel on December 1, 2019

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

DOES GROUNDHOG DAY BEAR REPEATING?

At the center of San Francisco Playhouse’s first regional premiere of Broadway’s Groundhog Day the Musical is the brilliant, perfectly cast Ryan Drummond, playing local TV news weatherman, Phil. This arrogant, uncaring teaser must relive Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney until he learns to care about other people. This musical adaptation of the iconic 1993 movie Groundhog Day (Danny Rubin adapted his and Harold Ramis’s screenplay) contains the same premise: As Phil’s February 2 time loop goes on innumerable times, the small-town folks react differently to Phil when he changes his approach to them.

However, the score by Matilda‘s Tim Minchin may be a bit tough for some to hear once, let alone over and over and over and over (even reprises don’t stick). The issue here is that Phil’s escapades in Punxsutawney are similar to a nonsensical Lewis Carroll novel, but it’s not so brillig for the listener: Minchin’s pop-like music is as unique and idiosyncratic as the lead character, but without distinction, too much of the score is monotonous. The second act gets better (Christopher Nightingale’s jazzy orchestrations in “Philanthropy” are awesome, and Dave Dobrusky’s 13-member orchestra knocks this and the rest of the score out of the park), but Groundhog Day exemplifies most Broadway musicals these days — one big tinge: ballad-tinged, rock-tinged, C&W-tinged, spoof-tinged, and pop-tinged.

Minchin, as he did with Matilda, The Musical, offers witty lyrics that consistently surprise, making his eccentric and mischievous little songs far more bearable. In “One Day,” Phil’s love interest Rita (Rinabeth Apostol), a newbie news segment producer, laments about her love life, exemplified by “another sexually ineffectual, self-obsessing metrosexual, pseudo-intellectual, getting drunk and existential, every time the Steelers lose a game.” Some may not be so forgiving of Minchin’s many false rhymes. As Sondheim insists, lyrics in musical theater must rhyme, and those rhymes must be perfect rhymes, not near or slant equivalents; knowing we’re hearing these for the first time, lyrics should land on the ear easily — an audience has enough to take in.

It should also be noted that Sondheim took on the idea of musicalizing Groundhog Day himself; eventually he dropped the idea, saying, that “to make a musical of Groundhog Day would be to gild the lily. It cannot be improved.” Not that Sondheim is an oracle — remember that Rodgers and Hammerstein gave up on musicalizing Pygmalion, with Hammerstein telling My Fair Lady‘s lyricist Alan Jay Lerner that converting the play to a musical was impossible. But from this adaptation, Sondheim’s assertion looks accurate.

For those who have cut their teeth listening to cast albums rich in originality and standalone songs, this score doesn’t bear repeating. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this production. As with Phil, who has a greater appreciation for life after being cursed to live the same day in perpetuity, there’s something new to pick up on as the show progresses. It’s a bit tough to jump on board at first as director Susi Damilano — admirably helming this very busy show — allows characters to be cartoonish to the point of unbelieveability, so the show begins silly. And while Nicole Helfer’s playful choreography keeps the ensemble busy, sometimes adding style and character development, more actual dance breakouts were needed. As the show settles, and Phil begins using his situation to get laid, it gets more interesting. Once he attempts suicide repeatedly, first out of desperation than as proof of this cosmic joke, it is dark and funny.

Mr. Drummond does a yeoman’s job here. His cynicism is loveable and natural. His winning voice is sturdy and just this side of character. And his about-face is completely natural, even as we don’t believe he’s in love with Rita, which is perhaps largely due to the casting of Rita. When the pretty gal that Phil ultimately beds for a night sings “Playing Nancy,” one of the shows better numbers lamenting the one-night stand for women, the unbelievably lovely Sophia Introna immediately convinced me that she was the actress to play Rita. Ms. Apostol is most definitely lovely, but she lacks the magnetism and inner machinery to truly be Rita.

The huge ensemble, often playing multiple roles, are fun to watch when they’re not over the top. Dean Linnard as Phil’s insurance-selling high school classmate Ned Ryerson gets the combination of goofiness and pathos exactly right.

It’s amazing that Damilano & Co. pull off this gigantic show — a turntable helps by speeding up scene changes, which hopefully will pick up even more speed during the run. Damilano’s staging is often delightful and even aroused my admiration because she gets the most important thing right — the feeling that this is an Ebenezer Scrooge tale in which magical elements turn around a man’s thinking. Sure, the musical isn’t great, but I left with a great feeling. Think of it as A Groundhog Carol.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Groundhog Day the Musical
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St. in Union Square
ends on January 18, 2020
for tickets, call 415.677.9596 or visit SF Playhouse

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