Not the Worst ‘Day’ Ever: ‘Groundhog Day: The Musical’ West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse

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“The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it. Thus he acquires no sense of conviction of the correctness of the construction that has been communicated to him. He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past.”
– Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920)

It’s funny to wind up seeing a show about a meteorologist when you know an actual meteorologist is in the audience. As I took my seat in the SF Playhouse, I couldn’t help but notice that opening night was also being attended by award-winning KTVU meteorologist Rosemary Orozco. As I watched the show, I couldn’t help but wonder what she thought of the portrayal of her profession: did she enjoy the over-exaggeration? Was she offended by the callousness of the way Phil shit-talks his co-workers during the opening number? Did she relate to having been assigned a story where she’d rather be somewhere – anywhere – than right there reporting the story? Only she would know.

(Incidentally, the next show I saw – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – would find me seated next to ABC-7’s Kristen Sze.)

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Phil (Ryan Drummond, center) would rather be anywhere than amongst the citizens of Punxsatawney (Jorge Luis Diaz, Loreigna Sinclair, Larissa Kelloway, Kathryn Hannah, Dean Linnard, Sophia Introna, Danielle Philapil, and Montel Anthony Nord). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

I’ll say this for the Playhouse: they certainly knew how to set the mood for the story we were about to see. Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation of the 1993 wasn’t allowed to use any of the film’s score or licensed songs. As such, the Playhouse made up for this by preceding the show with one song and one song only: “I Got You, Babe”. Played over and over and over again. Nothing in Minchin’s songbook approaches the gratingly saccharine nature of Sonny & Cher’s signature hit, which is a blessing in how it makes his songs worth listening to, yet it never gives the audience a sense of hair-pulling anxiety of Phil’s continual day. Then again, maybe some experiences don’t need to be that visceral.

After all, Minchin’s musical (with a book by Danny Rubin) is far more “adult” than its tame-by-comparison predecessor. The story’s still the same: narcissist meteorologist Phil Connors (Playhouse musical regular Ryan Drummond) is none-too-happy about covering the Groundhog Day celebration in Punxsutawney, PA, with the small-town folk and their irritating niceness. The only thing worse than having to spend a day in this town is having to spend the same day there for an apparent eternity.

Yeah, the story’s the same, but a few more obscenities have been added, Phil’s vices are more thoroughly explored, and the darkness of Phil’s saga is given greater emphasis. There’s also a greater emphasis put on Rita, the news producer sent to run Phil’s Punxsutawney shoot. Whilst the emphasis on the darkness makes sense, the emphasis on Rita smacks more of a ham-fisted attempt to make Phil more likable. Early on, Rita has a song recounting her poor dating history and the attraction she has to a local bartender. The narrative attempt is to draw a parallel between her and Phil’s own wandering eye, as if to pull her down to his level to make their inevitable coupling more, I dunno, “even”?

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Phil’s (Ryan Drummond) attempts to better himself begin to work on Rita (Rinabeth Apostol). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

But this does a disservice to Rita because she doesn’t need to be brought down to Phil’s level. Moreso, she shouldn’t be the focus of the story unless she, too, gets caught in a time loop. And actor Rinabeth Apostol’s performance (who is becoming one of the Bay Area’s best performers since first appearing in Two Mile Hollow last year) seems a bit too self-aware of the story’s silliness. It’s as if she were again playing the final act of her amazing performance in The Chinese Lady, where she goes full IDGAF mode. Apostol is a smart and gifted performer, but neither she nor the text provide any real reason as to why a woman as smart as that performance would fall for Phil.

Think of it this way: Sophia Introna, who I can’t recall having ever seen perform before, plays Phil’s eventual conquest, Nancy. The journey Nancy takes from ditzy pretty girl to self-aware stock character is actually acknowledged directly in the Act II song “Playing Nancy”. It’s a meta tune in which the character holds both herself and the audience accountable for playing into the stereotype that attractive women shouldn’t be taken seriously (think “Diva’s Lament” from Spamalot played completely sincere). It’s sad, organic, and comes after a progression that didn’t play the end first.

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano knows how to get the best out of her cast. The company’s resident musical and comedy aficionado, she can always be counted on to show a clear affinity for the work she helms. Occasionally, this works against her by adding more “air” into shows that should move more briskly. Fortunately, she seems to be improving in this area. Her timing and always-great character work is easy to see in Introna’s performance, as well as Dean Linnard’s funny-then-sad new take on insurance salesman Ned. And the casting of Michael Gene Sullivan as the mayor, complete with Fargo-esque Nor’Easter accent, is… actually pretty adorable to watch.

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Phil (Ryan Drummond, center) tries every method he can to figure out what’s wrong. (Dean Linnard, Michael Gene Sullivan, Larissa Kelloway, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, Sophia Introna, Danielle Philapil) Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Speaking of Fargo, Damilano and choreographer Nicole Helfer deserve credit for their use of “fake Shemps” as a way of showing the passage of time. With a little sleight-of-hand (and some careful face obfuscation), they make a fun game out of the gallows humor that is Phil’s suicide montage. The dances are just as fun to watch, but it’s this sequence that shows off what you get when a director has a clear vision and is completely in sync with their choreographer. Edward Morris’s set doesn’t look like much at the start – a lot of open space with picket fences along the outer border – but the use of “Lazy Susan” floor (which, it must be said, moves in a counter-clockwise direction – very clever) allows for a great deal gimmickry with walls, beds, and the like. Teddy Hulsker’s sounds and York Kennedy’s lights add to the illusion well.

Groudhog Day wouldn’t be my first choice for a Christmastime show – what with it taking place two months later – and this new production has made me rethink its distinction as a “family film”. The film still has a special place in my heart, but the text of this new version seems intent on making it unnecessarily more “adult”.

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The Mayor (Michael Gene Sullivan, center) and citizens of Punxsutawney (Kathryn Hannah, Larissa Kelloway, Michael Motroni, Dean Linnard, Montel Anthony Nord) are all-too-ready to welcome the groundhog. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

Still, Damilano’s knows how to lead most of her cast towards fine performances, and she wisely keeps an emphasis on the fun of the story without patronizing the darker aspects. For that reason alone, the show is worth checking out. Just don’t bring the kids.

GRADE:                                                            B-

Groundhog Day: The Musical is scheduled to run until the 18th of January 2020 at the SF Playhouse in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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