‘Groundhog Day’ comic musical tops Bill Murray flick

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★★☆

Residents of Punxsutawney, PA, who are excited about Groundhog Day include (from left) Michael Motroni, Danielle Philapil, Cameron La Brie, Larissa Kelloway, Sophia Introna and Dean Linnard. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

The late Yogi Berra, an idiom savant if ever there was one, might have been describing “Groundhog Day: The Musical” when he said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

At least that’s what the show etched on me.

I enjoyed the classic 1993 comedy fantasy film starring Bill Murray as cranky, cynical TV weatherman Phil Connors trapped in a daily time loop focused on the annual celebration in which the title critter supposedly predicts if winter will stretch out another six weeks.

But I liked the San Francisco Playhouse musical production, the first since the musical’s debut on Broadway in 2017, much more.

Weatherman Phil Connors (Ryan Drummond), stuck in Groundhog Day via a time loop, shares a gleeful moment with assistant producer Rita Hanson (Rinabeth Apostol). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Because it features an overall energy that’s on steroids, robust direction by Susi Damilano, breezy choreography by Nicole Helfer and, most alluringly, a splendiferous stellar comic star turn by rubbery-faced Ryan Drummond as Phil — totaling something that, at opening night Thanksgiving Day eve, I could truly be thankful for.

Drummond, who also sports first-rate singing chops, is ably supported by Rinabeth Apostol as Rita Hanson, Phil’s assistant producer that he’s hell-bent on bedding down after they become snowbound in Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania.

Apostol, not incidentally, also has dulcet vocal cords.

Slapstick and verbally clever moments proliferate. Funniest are a hospital interlude in which Phil is given an enema and serially examined by half a dozen real and quasi medical folk (including a shrink and a faith-healer); an impressionistic Tilt-a-Whirl scene; and a two-pronged set piece that starts in a bar and ends with miniature police vehicles with flashing lights lightheartedly engaging in a chase a la the famed televised flight of O.J. Simpson.

Residents of Punxsutawney, PA, who are excited about Groundhog Day include (from left) Michael Motroni, Danielle Philapil, Cameron La Brie, Larissa Kelloway, Sophia Introna and Dean Linnard. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Other highlights in “Groundhog Day: The Musical,” with its 16-person cast, many of whom play multiple parts, include a gamut of colorful costumes designed by Abra Berman for the mega-cheerful townies and good use of impressive, multiple revolving parts of stage.

The familiar storyline by Danny Rubin (who co-wrote the film’s screenplay) conceptualizes self-improvement and a spiritual path to achieving happiness by helping others.

And for those who desire character change, it should come as no surprise that Phil in effect goes through a personality transplant — from disgruntled male chauvinist to sensitive, likeable human being.

Fitting another of Yogi Berra’s idiomatic idiosyncrasies: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

What’s the music like?

A live backstage band led by Dave Dobrusky, who’s been with SFPlayhouse for almost a decade and a half, plus five other instrumentalists render 23 mostly upbeat, bouncy, cunningly-worded numbers by Tim Minchin, who also composed music and lyrics for “Matilda.”

A couple of the more serious tunes deal with feminist-tinged issues, including “Playing Nancy,” a song in which a tight-jeaned woman bemoans her sexual attractiveness because it forever means she’ll be used by men.

Problems? Yes, a few come to mind.

  • The seemingly endless repetition of days and their elements gets a bit tiresome even when played for amusement, even when that humor shifts to pathos (as Phil initially acts out his fantasies but turns to a futile shot at saving a dying homeless man and equally futile suicide attempts).
  • The first act races to its curtain but the second is somewhat sluggish, making the two-and-a-half hour show (plus intermission) a tad long overall.
  • Occasional, unnecessary profanity pops up, perhaps inappropriate for young, sheltered kids.

That having been said, it feels imperative for me to declare that, despite those minor flaws, the show’s about 94.3 percent pleasurable.

And everyone who attended opening night, as far as I could tell, stuck around for its feel-good ending.

Which brings to mind another Yogi Berra-ism: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

“Groundhog Day: The Musical” plays at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco (second floor, Kensington Park Hotel), through Jan. 18. Night performances, 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees, 2 p.m. Sundays, 3 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets $40-$125. Information: (415) 677-9596 or www.sfplayhouse.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author

Woody WeingartenWoody Weingarten, who can be reached at www.vitalitypress.com/ or voodee@sbcglobal.net, can’t remember when he couldn’t talk — or play with words. His first poem was published in high school but when his hormones announced the arrival of adulthood, he figured he’d rather eat than rhyme. So he switched to journalism. And whadda ya know, the bearded, bespectacled fella has used big, small and hyphenated words professionally since jumpstarting his career in New Yawk City more than 60 years ago. Today the author of the book “Rollercoaster: How a man can survive his partner’s breast cancer” is also a reviewer-critic, blogger and publisher — despite allegedly being retired. During his better-paid years as a wage slave he was an executive editor and writer for daily and weekly publications in California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York. He won writing awards for public service and investigation, features, columns, editorials and news. Woody also has published weekly and monthly newspapers, and written a national column for “Audio” magazine. A graduate of Colgate University, he owned a public relations/ad agency and managed an advertising publication. The father of two and grandfather of three, he and his wife, Nancy Fox, have lived in San Anselmo in Marin County for three decades. He figures they'll stay.View all posts by Woody Weingarten →

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