Entertainment » Theatre

Groundhog Day

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Dec 2, 2019
Ryan Drummond and company in "Groundhog Day."
Ryan Drummond and company in "Groundhog Day."  

Repetition is the essence of making theater: it's the same dialogue, the same blocking, and the same songs every day, and twice on weekends.

Which makes "Groundhog Day: The Musical, either an ingenious idea or a borderline maniacal one, depending on your point of view.

Based on the now-classic 1993 Bill Murray comedy, this sort-of holiday-themed pageant by Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin previously played on Broadway but nowhere else before now. SF cofounder and cornerstone Susi Damilano weathers directing duties this time.

Ryan Drummond is Phil, an elitist big-city weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day ritual in rural-weird Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney.

As even people who never saw the film probably know, Phil miraculously ends up reliving Groundhog Day over and over again, with seemingly no way out of the cycle. This gets to be heady metaphysical stuff if you think about it for too long.

What's happening to everyone else in the world while Phil goes through these motions? Is the universe entirely subjective and revolving around this one man the whole time?

The idea that the world stops for one egomaniac becomes perversely intriguing in the context of this show, in no small part because this might be the part Drummond was born to play.

A mainstay of past Playhouse musicals like "City of Angels" and "A Christmas Story," someone finally handed him a leading man role perfectly suited to his special blend of dorky cynicism and skeptical charisma.

Drummond creates sparks as his high-tension body language and black coffee-grade persona clash with the overwrought, almost Dr. Seuss-like frivolity of the town.

The latter poses something of a problem for "Groundhog Day." To help justify this admittedly gratuitous adaptation, it makes sense to turn the happy-go-lucky Punxsutawney people into a spring-heeled chorus line and employ the bouncy conventions of a musical as a foil for our lead.

However in the show's very first real number, "There Will Be Sun," the effect is overbearing, and at first, you can't help but wonder if maybe Phil has the right idea being wary of these people. And also perhaps that he's accidentally wandered into a "Black Mirror" episode.

But as the plot unfolds this slightly manic vibe improves the action, as the idea of facing all of this not just one day but every day raises the stakes even more, especially with "Stuck," a witty comedy number featuring a series of quack doctors.

"Groundhog Day'" is also a love story, with leading lady Rinabeth Apostol as Phil's everywoman producer and romantic interest, Rita.

Recently seen as one of the hardass bodyguards in Cal Shakes' "House of Joy," Apostol is a little stuck in this part. Rita is never even really aware of the story even as it's taking place, so she has limited scope.

The show tries to counter this by giving her several reflective solos, but the most effective bit of characterization is a single line of dialogue that, far more than the presence of cell phones onstage, makes "Groundhog Day" feel suddenly contemporary.

Rita, though in her mid-30s, mentions several times that this is her first live broadcast job. Back in '93 that would have seemed like a late start to a career, but with the character firmly established as a Millennial it seems not only typical but tragically relatable.

"Groundhog Day" never really has the chance to promote its many other characters. And many elements carried over from the film are duds onstage, like Phil's luckless suicides—which are grimly funny when you passively watch a movie but disturbing when played out live onstage.

But the musical treatment does this give this story one big jolt in the form of the endlessly kinetic blocking and choreography.

For long stretches of time, the stage is in constant motion, a carousel of lights, songs, and actors that streams past with remarkable precision. The secret to pulling it off: repetition, of course.

The world doesn't really need anymore, unprovoked musical adaptations of popular movies from yesteryear.

But as long as we're still getting them, "Groundhog Day: The Musical" is a swell take. It's imperfect, but the mix of sardonicism and vague but distinct spirituality fare well with the stage treatment, and this is presumably the only change the note-perfect lead would ever get take up the original Bill Murray role.

"Groundhog Day" runs through January 18 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit SFPlayhouse.org

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