Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
That didn't happen at the San Francisco Playhouse production of Groundhog Day. The film is one of my all-time favorites, one I've seen at least a half-dozen times. For me, it's the most Capra-esqe movie since Capra. Phil Connors (Bill Murray in the film) is George Bailey, undergoing a mystical experience that teaches him the inherent value of existence. But in It's a Wonderful Life, George gets the point in a single night. Phil Connors is a little more stubborn. It takes a near-infinity of iterations for him to learn a critical life lesson: if existence is endless, he might as well be true to himself (and kind to others). The lesson Groundhog Day delivers to its audience is an even more critical one: we need to be true to ourselves (and kind to others) because the exact opposite is truelife is short.
If you are one of the few people who have never seen either the film or the musical, nor grokked how it has become a bit of a cultural meme, here's the elevator pitch: Phil Connors is a bitter TV weatherman, annoyed at having to travel to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the Groundhog Day celebration. Once there, a blizzard moves in, closing all the roads out of town and Phil is stuck. Far more stuck than he first imagines, forthrough some magical forcewhen Phil wakes up the next day, it's Groundhog Day again. In fact, every morning when he wakes up it's Groundhog Day again, and no matter what he does, he can't escape.
Despite multiple viewings of the film, and seeing the musical when it ran on Broadway back in 2017, I attempted to be open-minded as I took my seat at San Francisco Playhouse. Not to pretend I didn't know the story intimately, but to concentrate on experiencing it as a thing very different from the movie (and a little less different from the production I saw at the August Wilson Theatre in New York).
For the most part, director Susi Damilano has succeeded marvelously in making me forget those other versions of Danny Rubin's charming, funny, touching story. She made a great decision casting Ryan Drummond as Phil Connors: Drummond's rubbery face and brassy voice meld perfectly with Connors' world-weary, snarky outlook on life. Every time he's recognized on the street and shoots back a "Thanks for watching!" with a double thumbs-up, his expressive eyes communicate a forced cheer that almost passes for sincerity. But when he has finally learned his lesson and becomes the kind, thoughtful man he apparently always was inside, those eyes soften and genuine sincerity shines through.
Unfortunately, Rinabeth Apostol (playing Rita, ultimately Phil's love interest) lacks the voice to fully express the desires and ambitions of her character, a young news producer, and she and Drummond share very little chemistry. Dean Linnard, however, is fantastic as Ned Ryerson, a supremely annoying high school classmate of Phil's. His comic skills shine in act one, but it's his gorgeous, resonant rendering of the bittersweet "Night Will Come" that is a highlight of the second half of the show.
The staging effects Damilano employs help us understand when time has repeated itself, and heighten the comedy. She uses the theater's turntable to good effect, reinforcing the cyclical, recurring nature of Phil Connors' experience of being trapped in time. To work, this story has to be propelled forward at a brisk pace, even as it returns again and again to the same scenes, and Damilano has met this challenge with tremendous grace.
Tim Minchin's songs add buoyant energy and snarky wit. More important, they expand the story beyond Phil Connors' experience. Perhaps the Punxsutawnians aren't reliving the same 24 hours over and over for a virtually infinite number of times, but they have their own issues with not making the most of every moment. In the act one closing number, "One Day," the townsfolk sing of all the things they have been putting off, or of changing their bad habits, or learning something newand it will all happen "one day," just not today. Not yet, at least.
However, as much as I tried to maintain beginner's mind as I watched the show, I still left the theater feeling Groundhog Day the musical somehow failed to capture the heart and poignancy and power of the film. Which raises the question: Would I have had a similar reaction if this were the first time I'd been told this story? Would its inherent humanity have won me over as it did the first time I saw the movie? Am I unfairly comparing the two? Probably, but fortunately, this story's charms are so rich and run so deep that whether you are a Groundhog Day virgin or a veteran of many viewings, this production does a terrific job of telling a great story with a timeless message. Now go and do something you've been putting off until another day.
Groundhog Day runs through January 18, 2019, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $35-$125, available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.