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I’m used to seeing standing ovations on opening nights, but it’s been an age since I saw one this widespread and genuine. It was deserved. Most stage musicals now seem to be retooled versions of beloved movies, and if the movie in question is generally considered a stone classic, it takes a lot of care and skill to avoid shredding it. The late Harold Ramis’s 1993 comedy survives pretty much intact.
This is partly due to a canny script by Ramis’s original co-screenwriter Danny Rubin. When misanthropic TV weatherman Phil Connors finds himself in an endless time-loop repeatedly reliving February 2 in the hick town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (where the appearance of a groundhog determines the beginning of spring), Rubin knows both how to narrow the geographical focus in order to avoid too many clumsy “outdoor” sequences, and how to complement this by deepening the emotional story not just between Phil and his producer Rita but elsewhere around the town. Act Two, for instance, begins with a poignant number from Nancy, Phil’s first bedmate, about being seen merely as a sexual object.
And those numbers . . . As a musical comedian, Tim Minchin consistently fails to light my fire, but as a theatrical composer he is almost peerless. This production reunites the Matilda team of Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, designer Rob Howell (who has come up with a beautiful exploding-Toytown set) and choreographer Peter Darling. It radiates a more mature form of that musical’s combination of mischief and defiant sentiment, from Phil’s first lyric “Ugly bed/Ugly curtains/Pointless erection” to a heart-warming country number (the programme does not include a song list) when Phil and Rita finally get together at the town dance.
Carlyss Peer makes a more abrasive, less immediately fascinating Rita than Andie MacDowell. Surprisingly, the far bigger challenge of stepping into Bill Murray’s shoes is the one more easily pulled off: Andy Karl lacks the extreme poker-faced sardonicism, but adroitly runs the gamut from suicidal despair (when we see him apparently teleport across the stage from topping himself to wake up in the same bed yet again) to dedicated altruism. I think we’re destined to see a lot of productions of this show.
To September 17, www.oldvictheatre.com