Content warning: suicide
If one were to write up a list titled “Things you didn’t realize existed, but it’s somehow comforting to know that they do,” then a musical version of the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day” would be the right at the top. Following the classic story of weatherman Phil Connors, who’s forced to relive a cold and blustery Feb. 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the musical opened in 2016 and moved on to Broadway the year after. Now, only two years after its Broadway run, Phil (Ryan Drummond) is living out the Bay Area winter over at the San Francisco Playhouse, where “Groundhog Day the Musical” will run until Jan. 18.
Drummond is a steady lead as Phil, doing the role justice by being positively infuriating to watch. All glib comments and no heart, Phil is a fun character to hate until his cynical routine starts to become repetitive and predictable, which happens a little more than halfway through the first act. Even a good performance from Drummond can’t help the audience from feeling like they are the ones stuck in a time loop, witnessing the same immature behavior over and over again.
Luckily, Phil’s cynicism is balanced out by the overwhelming cheerfulness of the rest of the cast. The musical and the original movie both present themselves as character studies, but at the Playhouse, it’s the ensemble that really shines. The bright voices and goofy conversations are likely supposed to come off as annoying, but instead the ensemble is a true delight as they go about their small-town lives. It may be in part because the lead is so unlikeable for much of the play, but it’s refreshing to see such unabashedly happy people onstage.
The cheery faces are finally given names and backstories in the second act, bringing new energy and breaking the monotony that threatened to overtake the production. From a couple teetering on the edge of engagement to a father and his gay son, each townsperson fills their own little niche in the story and gives it life. But if the first act was too repetitive, then the second act is somewhat confused and incongruous, nose-diving into dark themes that seem to come out of nowhere.
At times, adding another layer to the story is a perfect move, such as with the songs “Playing Nancy” and “Night Will Come.” The latter in particular deserves its own shoutout; in the role of life insurance agent Ned Ryerson, Dean Linnard’s otherwise perky voice takes on a beautiful and haunting tone as he reminds the audience of its own mortality.
At other moments, however, the musical’s attempts at dark humor fall flat. One musical number even goes so far as to have ensemble members depicting different methods of suicide, which are staged front and center. It’s an uncomfortable creative choice, to say the least, leaving some audience members wincing in their seats.
All in all, while the production seems to laud itself for addressing dark and complex themes, “Groundhog Day” just doesn’t hold up as a serious piece of theater. Instead, it’s another cute, somewhat trite holiday story like all the rest, albeit one with the occasional disturbing moment. But as the story itself suggests, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to be trite; in fact, the cast is at its best when it revels in its own holiday cheer, playing up all the coziness and niceties that we like to associate with the winter. After all, “Groundhog Day” is a happy tale at its core, a reminder that all bad things will come to an end — that one day, there will be sun.