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My review of GROUNDHOG DAY: Andy Karl asks 'What if there is no tomorrow?' in this new musical
Posted by: jesse21 12:52 pm EDT 04/17/17

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Groundhog Day is the kind of musical you hope for when the curtain rises: a show that doesn’t insult your intelligence. This adaptation of a film classic is clever, witty, tuneful, and smart adult entertainment.

And it has the potential of turning Broadway’s Andy Karl into a show business superstar.

But in the space of just one week, this musical sure has had its ups and downs. A week ago, Groundhog Day was named best new musical at London’s Olivier Awards for a previous engagement, a Broadway tryout actually, last summer at the Old Vic. And Mr. Karl was named best actor in a musical. Meanwhile, in previews on Broadway, the show’s intricate five interlocking turntables kept breaking down, first causing cancellation of the first preview twenty minutes into the show, and then stalling the proceedings at other performances. At one of the final preview I attended last Thursday, the turntable malfunctioned once, causing a seven-minute delay in the first act.

But Mr. Karl was just spectacular on Thursday, executing a big leading man role requiring stamina and derring-do moves. Then at the next performance on Friday, he injured his knee toward the conclusion of the show. He finished but was out Saturday when the matinee was cancelled and the evening performance had understudy Andrew Call going on.  The good news this afternoon is that Mr. Karl will be performing at tonight’s opening. (Whew!)

Nevertheless it was a bad break for Andy Karl who is giving the kind of handsome leading man performance, both romantic and comically physical, that reminds you of the young Kevin Kline or, more recently, Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz.

Fans of the 1993 movie might think nobody could ever play cynical weatherman Phil Collins better than Bill Murray. Yet Andy Karl manages to equal Mr. Murray with a younger swaggering Phil who is distinctly just right for a leading man in musical theater.

That is partly due to original screenwriter Danny Rubin's treatment of the musical's book.  He’s kept the same structure of his much beloved film but has opened up the script to allow for maximum theatricality and more heartfelt emotion. That provides his colleagues, the team responsible for Matilda the Musical, a tremendous opportunity for ingenuity.

Briefly, for anyone not familiar with the movie, Groundhog Day is the story of an arrogant Pittsburgh weatherman who, against his will, is asked every year to report from Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2 on whether or not "the magical beaver" (as Phil sarcastically calls him) will see or not see his shadow.  There is a snowstorm later in the day and the roads are closed. Phil has to stay another night but instead finds himself in a time warp where Feb 2 replays itself ad infinitem. The tone is a mixture of fantasy and sarcasm.

The plot and the attitude offer all sorts of creative possibilities. Even Stephen Sondheim once considered adapting the movie into a musical. Here, director  Matthew Warchus and his team let their imaginations run as Phil realizes that he can do anything he damn well pleases since there is no tomorrow in this “hellish” hick town.   One especially delightful production number (“Nobody Cares”) has two cop cars chasing a pickup truck with Phil and a pair of yokels (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee) who’ve all gotten smashed at a local tavern.

For that scene, scenic and costume designer Rob Howell constructs the truck on stage and then employs miniatures for the car chase.  It is typical of his marvelous fanciful conceptions that also include a series of lit-up small buildings as a framing device and a costume that is an enormous groundhog.  There are also some terrific illusions provided by Paul Kieve.

At the core of representing the repetitive days, Mr. Howell has designed the complicated revolve. Despite the technical problems that have been plaguing previews, this is a perfect solution to the storyline where to illustrate the time warp, one turntable can move clockwise and another counter-clockwise.  Director Warchus’s work is quite brilliant in moving the show on these turntables, surely the trickiest and most challenging directorial project this year.

Composer-lyricist Tim Minchin finds his groove with a breezy score that puts the musical’s themes into song. He employs all sorts of styles -- including funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, bluegrass and country -- each appropriate for the scene being musicalized. Since reprises, either of musical motifs or songs, are a feature of musicals anyway, Mr. Minchin has a field day with the technique in the first act to get the story across with ingenious reprises of songs introduced at the start of the show. My one regret is that this material isn’t particularly catchy the way the superior second act songs are. Here he interestingly gives solos (that help voice the show’s themes) to two minor characters: Rebecca Faulkenberry, as an attractive blond who has a reputation for promiscuity, sings “Playing Nancy” while an insurance salesman, played by John Sanders, who has been pestering Phil throughout the show, pauses with a lament, “Night Will Come.” The songs are lovely and beautifully performed. The second act also features a fabulous tap dancing production number (“Philanthropy”) for Mr. Karl and the ensemble where co-choreographer Peter Darling (with co-choreographer Ellen Kane) once again shows off the sort of inventiveness he brought to big numbers like “Solidarity” in Billy Elliot.

There are also very good songs in both acts for Barrett Doss, the leading lady with an impressive singing voice. The relatively unknown actress, an understudy in the 2014 You Can't Take It With You revival, is a welcome fresh face. She plays Rita, the weathercast producer Phil wants to bed. But in his second-act transformation where he begins to accept his supposed fate and some of the values of small-town America, the show’s romance begins of course.

Groundhog Day is the second truly first-rate musical of this Broadway season, along with Dear Evan Hansen. Both are terrific examples of what modern and contemporary musicals can achieve for present-day tastes and sensibilities. Here’s wishing Groundhog Day the same success as “Evan Hansen.” And best wishes to Andy Karl for a full recovery.


★ ★ ★ ★ ½

- Jesse








MUSICAL NUMBERS:

Act I

“There Will Be Sun” -- Company
“Small Town, USA” -- Phil Connors (Andy Karl) and Company
“Punxsutawney Phil” -- Company
“February 2nd/There Will Be Sun” -- Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss) and Company
“Small Town, USA” -- Phil Connors and Company
“Punxsutawney Phil” -- Company
“February 2nd/There Will Be Sun” -- Rita Hanson and Company
“Small Town, USA” -- Company
“Stuck” -- Phil Connors and Healers
“Nobody Cares” -- Gus (Andrew Call), Ralph (Raymond J. Lee), Phil Connors and Company
“Philandering” -- Company
“One Day” -- Rita Hanson, Phil Connors and Company

Act II

“Playing Nancy” -- Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry)
“Hope” -- Phil Connors and Company
“Everything About You” -- Phil Connors
“If I Had My Time Again” -- Rita Hanson, Phil Connors and Company
“Everything About You” (Reprise) -- Phil Connors
“Philosopher” -- Phil Connors and Company
“Night Will Come” -- Ned Ryerson (John Sanders)
“Philanthropy” -- Phil Connors and Company
“Punxsutawney Rock” -- Piano Teacher (Tari Kelly) and Company
“Seeing You” -- Phil Connors, Rita Hanson and Company
“Dawn” -- Company









SIDEBAR:

  • Photos: production stills.


  • Video: production montage (Time 1:24).


  • Article: Andy Karl, Star of Musical ‘Groundhog Day,’ Is Injured During Preview by Michael Paulson, The New York Times, 4-15-2017.


  • Article: Days Before Opening, Groundhog Day Tries Out a New Phil Connors by Jackson McHenry, Vulture, 4-16-2017.


  • Article: Can cast injury derail 'Groundhog Day'? How the musical has overcome its obstacles (again and again) by Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times, 4-16-2017.


  • Article: ‘Groundhog Day’ star Andy Karl on deja vu, audition tricks and acting in his underwear by Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News, 3-11-2017.


  • Article: “Danny Rubin wrote the beloved movie and, 24 years later, the musical. In between, he lived it” by S. I. Rosenbaum, Vulture, 3-26-2017.


  • Article: Tim Minchin Puts Emotion on Broadway. Just Don’t Call Him Sentimental by Elisabeth Vincentelli, The New York Times, 4-15-2017.







  • GROUNDHOG DAY opens Monday, April 17, 2017, at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, New York City. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. Act I: 75 minutes. Act II: 62 minutes. Open-ended engagement. Tickets currently on sale through January 7, 2017. Link to website.







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