So there was Andy Karl, the star of “Groundhog Day,” on stage in what’s supposed to be a seduction scene, but he was proudly showing off the elaborate black knee-brace on his bare outstretched leg, sticking a glass of Scotch on top of it. The brace was the only visible sign of the accident that injured Karl three days before the opening, causing him to miss several performances on doctor’s orders. But here he was back again in spectacular form, adding this cheeky bit of improvisation in an inventive, energetic and wholly winning performance that is the main reason to see this musical adaptation of the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray.
Like the movie, the musical tells the story of TV weatherman Phil Connors who, in a metaphysical twist, is suddenly forced to relive over and over again a single day, Groundhog Day, February 2, in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, an actual small town that turns Groundhog Day into an annual celebration. That celebration is built around a groundhog named Phil, who either sees his shadow or doesn’t, thus predicting whether spring will come six weeks early.
It’s not as easy to predict who will like “Groundhog Day,” a musical built around Andy Karl as Phil Connors, despite the Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Lead Male performance that the show received in London.
The story, with a book by Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with the late Harold Ramis, is fairly faithful to a movie that I love, and that I have watched, um, repeatedly. Yet the translation to the stage presents logistical problems that the theatrical team solves with only varying degrees of success. The score by Tim Minchin, best known for Matilda, is full of clever, saucy lyrics and music that ranges from rock to jazz to country to funk to folk to lovely ballads. Yet some of these original songs seem inserted jukebox style rather than flowing organically from the action. Director Matthew Warchus has assembled a 20-member supporting cast comprised mostly of reliable Broadway regulars, and hired the same exuberant choreographer Peter Darling and the same design team that wowed audiences at Matilda, including Paul Kieve, a master of special effects. Yet supporting cast, choreographer and designers are sometimes employed in what one can describe as cartoon extravaganzas – technically impressive fast footwork and flashy stage effects that fill both eyes and ears but reach neither mind nor heart (nor funnybone!) All I can say about “Groundhog Day” without ambivalence is that Andy Karl’s performance is one that nobody should miss.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
It’s intriguing to see the evolution of Karl’s reaction to yet another repeated day in Punxsutawney – shocked, hostile, destructive, hedonistic, suicidal, resigned…until finally, he becomes enlightened: He takes the time to learn speak French, play piano, recite the almanac…and to learn about the lives of the individual townspeople of Punxsutawney, and to care about them.
The creative team makes a show of caring about the townspeople too; the most obvious example is their giving solo songs to people Phil has treated dismissively — Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry), a beautiful blonde who feels doomed to being mistreated by men ( “Playing Nancy”), and to Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), Phil’s nerdy high school classmate who now sells insurance (“Night Will Come.”) In and of themselves, these are lovely songs, but they are not enough to turn the characters from Phil’s cartoony adjuncts into people we feel we know.
The one character who gets her full due, while also serving as one of Phil’s foil, is the one portrayed sympathetically by Barrett Doss — Rita, the associate producer who has accompanied him on the trip to Punxsutawney from their home studio (which is apparently in Ohio.) A highlight of the musical is the scenes that chronicle Phil’s courtship of Rita. On each first date he does something that makes her slap him in the face, but day after day, he tries to fix his faux-pas of the previous first date.
In “One Day,” one of Rita’s several songs, we see her ambivalence towards even the possibility of love:
One day, some day, my prince may come
but it doesn’t seem likely
and even if he came and he liked me
The song continues, after a scene in which Phil asks what she wants in a man. She sings:
He’ll be tender but tough, and smart but not smug
and attentive but not fawning and he’ll smell good in the morning
and he’ll dance.
Phil interrupts: “This is a guy we’re talking about, right?”
This mix of mockery and heart was central to the success of the movie, a tone it navigated with great skill. The musical is not always as successful in doing so.
As in the movie, there is a series of scenes in which Phil, driven almost mad by the day’s repetition, tries to kill himself. At one point, he electrocutes himself with a toaster in a bathtub, and we instantly see him wake up the next morning in bed — one of the several terrific stage effects designed by Paul Kieve. But we also see ensemble members commit suicide in a macabre array of ways, while Karl sings a Minchin song entitled Hope:
Never give up hope
Never let yourself be defeated. if you tried it once, you can try again
The problem here is that the song is a soaring, tuneful ballad, and rather than funny, as the juxtaposition is surely meant to be, it comes off as confused and tasteless.
It must be said that Karl’s performance is untouched by this occasional tonal dissonance. He manages the transition from cynicism to sentiment credibly. He is also able to juggle admirably the comedy, romance and demanding physicality of the role. In doing so, Andy Karl establishes himself as a leading man in a way that his eight previous turns on Broadway have not, as good as they were; his last two were as Rocky Balboa in Rocky and the muscle-headed boy-toy in On The Twentieth Century.
Karl also drives home the most important themes of “Groundhog Day,” which resemble those of “Our Town,” albeit nearly overshadowed by state-of-the-art Broadway stagecraft — the everyday is wondrous if you take the time to pay attention; nobody takes the time to pay attention.
August Wilson Theater
Book by Danny Rubin, based on the screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis; Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreography by Peter Darling. Scenic Design by Rob Howell; Costume Design by Rob Howell; Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone; Sound Design by Simon Baker; Video Design by Andrzej Goulding; Hair Design by Campbell Young Associates; Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Associates; illusions by Paul Kieve
Cast Andy Karl, Barrett Doss, Rebecca Faulkenberry, John Sanders, Andrew Call, Raymond J. Lee, Heather Ayers, Kevin Bernard, Gerard Canonico, Rheaume Crenshaw, Michael Fatica, Katy Geraghty, Camden Gonzales, Jordan Grubb, Taylor Iman Jones, Tari Kelly, Josh Lamon, Joseph Medeiros, Sean Montgomery, William Parry, Jenna Rubaii, Vishal Vaidya, Travis Waldschmidt and Natalie Wisdom
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission.
Tickets: $69.50 to $159. General Rush and digital lottery: $40. Premium: $219