KPFA theatre critic Richard Wolinsky reviews “Groundhog Day: The Musical” directed by Susi Damilano, at San Francisco Playhouse through January 17, 2020
Text of review (differs from the edited audio version)..
The entertainment world has always used branding to sell its products. Adapting best-sellers and hit plays to the screen, and adapting films to television has been going on for decades, using the same name as the book or the film to draw audiences into the new iteration.
For Broadway, it hasn’t quite worked that way. Musicals tended to take on new names. So Pygmalion became My Fair Lady, Anna and the King the King and I, Seven and a half cents the Pajama Game. But after Giuliani, Bloomberg and the Walt Disney Company turned Broadway into a corporate cash cow, branding now rules the street. Whether jukebox shows or film adaptations, the bigger the name the greater the hedging of bets by producers. But still, three quarters of all shows flop.
Which brings us to the musicals Pretty Woman, Tootsie, King Kong, and Groundhog Day – and this last one is getting its Bay Area premiere not in a touring company but in a production at San Francisco Playhouse directed by the company’s own Susi Damilano.
Here’s the thing, though – putting aside the Disney adaptations of animated musicals — the successful ones, like Kinky Boots or The Band’s Visit or Light in the Piazza, came about not because the brand was so great, but because the story itself could sing. Groundhog Day and those other shows came about because the names were brands.
What Groundhog Day, and its three compatriats all have in common is that the musical iteration, despite good reviews for all except Kong, failed to find audiences, and flopped. Familiarity apparently breeds not contempt, but indifference. Producers hedged their bets, and played not to lose. And as a character noted in the film Crazy Rich Asians, hopefully never a musical, if you play not to lose, you lose.
So Groundhog Day saw its shadow, went into hiding, and never went on tour, which allowed regional theaters like SF Playhouse to pick up the mantle. Luckily for the Bay Area, this production is very good indeed. Ryan Drummond takes the Bill Murray role in a new direction; he owns the part of Phil Connors in a way one might have thought impossible given Bill Murray in the film. Elizabeth Apostal as Rita, Phil’s foil and eventual lover, easily outshines Andie McDowell. In fact, the entire cast, the set, the revolving stage, all bring this show as close to a Broadway touring version as its going to get. Which helps a lot, because the songs by Tim Minchin aren’t memorable, and the script by Danny Rubin is constantly fighting itself to both be original and still maintain the iconic scenes that made the film a classic. It works, kind of, but also doesn’t work.
Ultimately, the story of Groundhog Day could also be a metaphor for Groundhog Day the musical. It’s hero Phil Conners, who sees the same day, over and over and over again, eventually achieves an epiphany. The audience of Groundhog Day, sadly, isn’t as lucky.
Groundhog Day, the musical, directed by Susi Damilano, plays at San Francisco Playhouse through January 18th. For more information you can go to SFplayhouse.org. I’m Richard Wolinsky on Bay Area theatre for KPFA>.