Phil is pissed, big time. That Pittsburg’s best-known, TV weatherman has to drag himself on February 2 to the podunk town of Punxsutawney, PA to provide live coverage for the stupid tradition of having someone declare if a so-called groundhog named Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not is totally insulting. To make it worse, on his way to the annual ceremony on Gobbler’s Knob, everybody he meets in this lousy town is full of bubbly cheer, often wearing ridiculous groundhog paraphernalia and giving him big howdies and toothy grins. The more they smile, the more he growls and snarls. To make it worse, the station sent him not a producer, but an unknown assistant named Rita with no experience.
As most (if not all) people in the audience already know, Phil Connors is just in Day One of what will become a seemingly endless repeat of what he has already pretty much declared as the worst day of his life. While most of us have surely seen at least once the hilarious 1993 fantasy film, Groundhog Day, starring an incomparable Bill Murray as Phil, none of us has probably yet seen the outrageously funny, ridiculously complicated, and altogether uplifting musical version (Danny Rubin, book; Tim Minchin, music and lyrics) that is currently in its first professional, regional staging at San Francisco Playhouse after its relatively short Broadway run in 2017. With a turntable that spins as if it were the top of a 45rpm record player, scenes and a cast of twenty whirl day after day before us, each February 2 becoming ever-more outlandish and exasperating for poor Phil. All is accomplished under the incredible direction of Susi Damilano whose genius for guiding a myriad of continually moving parts and people is born out in just the first few minutes of the two hours, thirty minutes of this super-duper, laugh-a-minute, get-your-hanky-ready evening.
From the moment the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. and Phil finds himself in the tiny, claustrophobic B&B room in Punxsutawney, he begins rattling off in grumpy song a succession of his many displeasures: “Lumpy bed, ugly curtains, pointless erection; dried flowers, damp towels, no reception.” But as he makes his way outside to be greeted by jolly folk pumped up for the big day who sing in large-sounding harmonies “of a little town with a big heart,” he only becomes sourer as he sings repeatedly and with ever more disgust, “There’s nothing more depressing than small town, USA, and there is no town smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day” (“Small Town, USA”).
As Phil, Ryan Drummond could hardly show any more pouty, puffy ways of hating his assignment and all the people connected with it. He goes through the motions of his necessary broadcast, snipping roughly at his cameraman Larry and the new kid producer, Rita. But his barely awake eyes do look the pretty assistant over, and already we can see his slimy hands ready to feel her up and hope she will be a one-night stand in this god-forbidden town where they learn they must stay longer due to a sudden blizzard. Rita immediately dismisses his creepy, sexual approach, making Phil even more like a roaring polar bear on the attack.
The contrast of Phil and the townspeople around him could hardly be greater. People of all walks of life in all sorts of festive garb (including one groundhog who walks around with a sun over his head) sing is big, full harmony their cheery, chirpy dispositions and hope for an early spring, blue skies and sun – if not this year, than the one after (“There Will Be Sun”). As the Groundhog Director (Michael Gene Sullivan) lifts in front of the gathered throng from a too-cute, little house an adorable Phil, he declaratively sings with jocund voice and majestic manner that as one who understands “both English and Grounhogese,” “He indeed did see his shadow, six more weeks of winter.”
But for Phil, there are to be six times six times six and more of this very same, horribly boring, and depressing day. When the alarm rings the next morning with a shrill that it is again 6 a.m., he starts meeting the same folks saying the same lines and doing the same goofy things (like a couple in groundhog hats rubbing noses instead of kissing). To Phil’s evident horror, he once again runs into an overly effervescent insurance salesman named Ned Ryerson (a rib-tickling Dan Linnard) who claims they were in high school together and who cannot help but sing once again just as he did yesterday an obnoxious jingle about life insurance.
Day Two is one of disbelief, followed by Days Three, Four and more where Phil’s own repeat of “Small Town, USA” begins taking on notes reaping in panic with borders of anger now that he realizes he is stuck in time. All is made only worse as the town’s band continues to march; people, to cheer; the Director, to pull Phil the Groundhog out from his house; and Ned, to sing his stupid insurance lyrics – with events picking up in speed and intensity as the stage’s turntable quickens its pace.
The mastery of both Susi Damilano’s direction and Nicole Heifer’s choreography comes into full play as the alarm clock continues to wake an ever-changing Phil to a day that never changes. A visit to the Emergency Room is incredibly danced, rapidly sung (“Stuck”), and uproariously directed as he is examined and advised by six Healers ranging from the local cow doctor to an exorcising priest to a Dianetics propogandist and also undergoes in front of all – meaning us – a stage-filling enema from hell. Ryan Drummond’s Phil begins to understand that he has no mortal boundaries as he convinces two, drunken locals – Ralph (Jorge Luis Diaz) and Gus (Scott Taylor-Cole) – to join him as together they rip through in song and a truck ride to hell and back, “Nobody Cares.” An entire cast enters in black to orchestrate a mad-dashed, death-defying, alcohol-laced chase through the town’s darkened neighborhoods where neither approaching trains nor chasing cops nor occasional wrecks can stop or harm the three. After all, any problem of today can only be resolved tomorrow in the crazy, repeating world of Phil Connors.
What keeps Groundhog Day from being just silly, B-movie-type of fun is the daily discoveries, the slow transformation, the accumulated learning, and thus the subsequent self-improvements that Phil undergoes as the February Seconds multiply into seemingly hundreds. As he begins to realize that what he learns today is in fact retained to be used tomorrow, Phil morphs in front of our eyes in ways visceral and increasingly authentic and touching. The journey of change begins roughly as he uses facts gained to benefit his own personal depravity and sex drive. However, he bit-by-bit finally tires of one-night stands who never remember him the next morning, eating all the sticky buns he can without getting fat, and committing suicide a dozen crazy ways only to wake up alive again. At that moment, Phil finds and sings of “Hope.” With sincere expressions we have not seen previously and in a voice now grounded in tones subdued and beautiful, Ryan Drummond as Phil sings,
“Never give up hope,
Never let yourself be defeated.
You tried it once, you tried it again,
There’s always tomorrow.”
Rita has much to do with his desire to learn how to become better. Rinabeth Apostol is excellent as she portrays the assistant who keeps rejecting Phil’s crude philandering (resulting in a number of face slaps, day after day) but who becomes slowly intrigued of the things Phil seems to know about the town, its people, and her that he should have no way of knowing. As the Groundhog Days mount, we and Phil get to see who she really is, with Rita singing in ever-more confident, compelling vocals aspects of her own dreams when “someday my prince will come” (“One Day”).
Both Rita and Phil combine their intertwining lyrics to discover their own and each other’s resolutions of what they would do “If I Had My Time Again.” The help they give each other on that particular day leads to new realizations – especially by Phil – that life is not fate-determined but rather self-directed, even when it appears out of his control. His learning becomes an ah-ha for us all, especially when many of us feel that in our contemporary environment, we – like the Punxsutawany Phil on the stage before us – are now only puppets of handlers who make decisions we cannot seem to change about the inevitable wintery future in front of us. In fact, Phil Connors shows us the way through his own renewed hope-turned-into-action how to ensure that the sun will in fact shine again tomorrow.
Beyond a director, choreographer, and cast who amaze time and again as they together create incredible sequences of repeated days and crazy events in each – the human-powered Tilt-a-Whirl alone is worth the price of the ticket! – there is an entire creative team that outperforms expectations in producing this “must-see” musical. Edward T. Morris’s scenic design dazzles in fun and fury with its creative, swirling-on-the-turntable elements. Events take on big proportions with the excellent projections of Teddy Hulsker while details by the dozens are thigh-slappers through the over-the-top inventiveness of properties designer, Jacquelyn Scott. Abra Berman adds to all the heart and hilarity through her costume designs that clothe a whole town in wintery wear with a lot of wildly funny, Groundhog Day touches. The lighting schemes designed by York Kennedy somehow keep up with and totally enhance the whirlwind changes of days and scenes while the sound design of Teddy Hulsker ensues the oft-bullet-fast lyrics are clearly understood from a cast that seems constantly in motion.
The San Francisco Bay Area is currently blessed from various local companies with several theatrical musical gifts under the tree that are ‘must’s’ to be opened and enjoyed. Add to that list and put asterisks all around it San Francisco Playhouse’s regional theatre premiere of a laugh-to-you-hurt, spirit-soaring, and heart-warming Groundhog Day.
Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”
Groundhog Day continues through January 18, 2020 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street. Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli