Not once but many times upon a time, there lived a grumpy weatherman called Phil Connors, trapped in a time loop in small-town USA – doomed to repeat the same day over and over again until he learnt to change his ways.
So goes the premise of the modern classic Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, which asks the question, ‘What makes life worth living?, every bit as eloquently as It’s A Wonderful Life.
Who better to soundtrack this existential saga than Tim Minchin – the musical theatre maestro whose rare flair is slowly repairing a genre schmaltzed to smithereens by Lloyd Webber.
The Aussie composer and lyricist has reunited with the team behind the faultless Matilda – director Matthew Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling and designer Rob Howell.
Together with the 1993 film’s co-writer Danny Rubin, they’ve created another dizzying, dazzling, life-affirming show that delivered a joyous opening night at the Old Vic on Tuesday, ahead of its Broadway premier next spring.
Acclaimed American actor Andy Karl is a force of nature as Phil – a man for whom tomorrow is always a day away. His descent from reckless glee at his predicament into denial, acceptance, anger, depression and, finally, salvation is both heart-lifting and heartbreaking.
Despairing TV producer Rita, played with penache by Carlyss Peer, is far more flawed and fascinating than Andie MacDowell’s love interest in the film, making her a true co-star.
It’s not just the two leads that sparkle. Minchin brings the big ensemble to life, giving depth to Andrew Langtree’s iconic insurance salesman Ned Ryerson and Georgina Hagen’s Nancy – one of Phil’s one-night stands (“I’ve slept with 95 percent of the women in this town”) – who gets the second half off to a misty-eyed start with a ballad on the blessings and curses of beauty.
Other musical marvels include Phil’s drunken lament with town barflies Ralph and Gus, ending in what might be Theatreland’s first car chase scene and the kitchen sink finale Seeing You, marking the moment of epiphany that finally sets Phil free.
This witty, wise, big-hearted show is stuffed silly with life lessons – there’s no time like the present; practice makes perfect; life means what you mean to others – without ever resorting into sappy clichés. You’ll leave the theatre vowing to make the most of tomorrow.
My one gripe? After the euphoric standing ovation, it didn’t start again.
• Groundhog Day is at the Old Vic Theatre, London until 17 September. See www.oldvictheatre.com
Watch Tim Minchin performing Seeing You from the show…