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Andy Karl in Groundhog Day and Live, with Orfeh
Review by Rob Lester

Actor Andy Karl is having an eventful August. The live recording of the act he did with his wife, musical theatre performer Orfeh, was released; his portrait was added to the wall of performers at a New York City theatre-friendly restaurant; and he and the show he's starring in on Broadway, Groundhog Day, got a big thumbs-up from recent audience member Bill Murray, the man who created that leading role in the original film. And before the month ends, he'll be celebrating his 44th birthday. Also this month came some not-so-positive news: producers announced that Groundhog Day will soon be closing. But, lest we forget: recordings of performances, like the events in the plot of the musical in question, can be experienced over and over and over. And I think many listeners will want to do that with these two releases.

GROUNDHOG DAY
ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST

Masterworks Broadway/ Broadway Records

As someone sang in another cheeky show and film, "Let's do the time warp again." That was once upon a Rocky Horror and the star of the recent musical Rocky delivers a K.O. punch again, now as the central character in the recording of Groundhog Day: The Musical. Andy Karl is a dynamic leading man. In case you've been living in a burrow for a long time, the story of this musical based on a hit comedy film is that of a rather negative and selfish weatherman named Phil who somehow relives a certain day again and again. The day in question is, of course, February 2—Groundhog Day—and he, much to his chagrin, was assigned to an on-location report in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where tradition dictates that the arrival of spring is determined by whether or not the groundhog named Phil sees his shadow.

Whether or not it's karma or something else that traps Phil in this loop of reliving the events of the day, each time he wakes up back at square one is not necessarily the point. In any case, for listeners of the recording, the point is that hearing it all is quite a lot of fun in this energetic and often irreverent presentation. Then—spoiler alert—the sour fellow's outlook is sweetened, with the help of an epiphany and (what else?) falling in love with a smart, attractive woman. Magic spells can be broken. The cast of Groundhog Day casts its own spiffy spell of energy and charm.

Quirky and edgy, Karl's performance deftly trods what could be a tricky trail; his character is meant to be obnoxious and mean-spirited and might have come off as simply unlikable and distancing. But the actor keeps things funny and human, and we can unapologetically or secretly identify with Phil's moments of superiority and snideness, his dissatisfaction with a job assignment, his self-centeredness, and his awareness of the times when life seems banal or bitter. When the day-to-day dullness and grind become quite literally the same day, life in the slow lane provides a variety of well-delivered songs. The score effectively creates the increasing claustrophobia the lead character feels, and a kind of wacky humor and high energy infuse the proceedings. Hyperkinetic singing and accompaniment give way to real feelings coming through in the latter sections. But this happens in performances in an economic, unsentimentalized way.

So, the guy with the chip on his shoulder—who has to shoulder the weight of the woes from the nightmare that never seems to end—becomes a kind of Everyman dealing with life's indignities. And, hey, he's supposed to be irritating, as is the clock radio cacophony that jolts him awake—and which we listeners are repeatedly confronted with, in order to experience his frustration right along with him. The uber-peppy recycled musical mirth of townspeople cheering on the emerging groundhog might be another reason some listeners may reflexively reach for headache pills or the button to fast-forward/skip to the next track. If you do, be reminded that Phil cannot skip ahead to his next chapter at all. Your sympathy should then be solidified. And, soon enough, I think you'll chuckle, appreciate some clever songwriting, admire some brash or buoyant performances, or roll your eyes in unison with Karl/Phil at the goofy groundhog-centered goings-on.

With Danny Rubin, who came up with the film's story and wrote the screenplay, on board as bookwriter, Groundhog Day as a musical theatre piece is the result of a desire for Matilda: The Musical's director, Matthew Warchus, and its composer/lyricist, Tim Minchin, to collaborate again. Minchin's jangly, glib songs are a mixed bag. Although they show some admirable craft and creativity, they also often feature two of my least favorite elements: false rhymes and crass language, sometimes within the same couple of lines. Arguably, vulgar verbiage suits the characterization of ready-with-a-"colorful"-insult Phil and a couple of local lowbrow drinking buddies (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee) who'd make Homer Simpson sound almost classy and articulate. These three musketeers of arrested development and hedonism revel in that and their assertion that "Nobody Cares." In some songs, including this one, the rhyming is so inconsistent in its patterns that one can't be sure if some words are even intended to be (almost) rhymes or not (Are "same" and "pain" or "vomit" and "want it" supposed to rhyme in this number, which also brings us some true, if simple, rhymes such as: "do"/"too"; "car"/"bar"; "floor"/"for" and "piss" and "miss"?) Yet, it also has the forced rhyme matches of pronouncing "get" as "git" to rhyme with "bit" and then "toaster" to match the sound of "Then I goes-ta ..." and a more artful triple rhyming of "uninfluential"/"potential"/"inconsequential." And those are just examples for one song; unfortunately, the same issue occurs in other numbers.

I harp on these lazy false rhymes and bland simplistic rhymes because they are maddening when, just when we're about to give up hope, the same lyricist gives us "Hope" that he can take the needed care some of the language choices and, yes, rhyming—in this number which includes:

There will be mornings you'll be utterly defeated by your laces
Days when every look looks condescending
Empty smiles in empty faces
The same old places
The stunning stasis...
...You gaze upon the path you have to tread,
And in your head, that leaden dread..."

Barrett Doss as Rita, the love interest, is heard to best advantage in a very strong and exciting number which also shows excellent command of rhythm and soaring vocals, "If I Had My Time Again," in which her character wonders how she would want to handle a second chance at day(s) lived previously. The lyric is thoughtful (like the actress's portrayal of her character) and sparks fly, with Andy Karl adding counterpoint both musically and in perspective—her ebullience and optimism balanced with a kind of grounding of Phil rattling off his more mundane and less lofty viewpoints and "accomplishments."

Two other cast members each get a big solo with emotional weight, though their characters and impact on the plot can't really be appreciated out of context: Rebecca Faulkenberry arousing our sympathies (even as a "stranger" from out of the blue), confessing what it's like "Playing Nancy" and John Sanders, who is moving and persuasive in the gravitas-laced number that has the moral and key to everything Phil needs to hear to move on ("Night Will Come"). But let's not underestimate the varied and competent work of the ensemble as small-town folk with big voices in harmonies. A number of them are particularly sharp in their portrayals of "experts" and "healers" of dubious skill and effectiveness (who may be quacks) as they try to help poor Phil who is "Stuck."

Vocal arrangements are by Minchin and music supervisor/orchestrator/dance music arranger Christopher Nightingale. David Holcenberg, music director and keyboard player, conducts his fellow orchestra members; there are only 11 of them, but none plays just one instrument.

The sound is full and theatrical on this recording, with plenty of energy and musical fireworks. The booklet accompanying the CD has all the lyrics for the 17 sung tracks (we also get a brief overture and entr'acte), seven color photos, a one-page plot synopsis, credits, and an intro by director Warchus.

Despite the show posting its Broadway closing notice, there have been promises of a U.S. tour and a return to London, where Groundhog Day did quite well indeed, winning Olivier Awards for outstanding musical of its season and one for its star, the very impressive Andy Karl. So, the Groundhog gang may again be—to borrow the name of its touching and satisfying final number—"Seeing You."

ORFEH & ANDY KARL
LEGALLY BOUND
LIVE AT FEINSTEIN'S/ 54 BELOW

Broadway Records

"Seeing You" from Groundhog Day is the penultimate number, a potent solo for Andy Karl, the male star of that musical and the live recording of the nightclub act called Legally Bound. The name is a little wordplay on the title of the musical he and wife Orfeh appeared in together, Legally Blonde, after they'd been legally bound by marriage. That knot was tied a decade and a half ago; they met in the stage version of Saturday Night Fever. Although they sing nothing from that disco-drenched show, they do often raise their singing and the band's playing to a fever pitch. With Orfeh a deep-voiced, no-holds-barred, out-and-out R&B wailer and Andy Karl game for amiably and unpretentiously rocking out and strutting, there's more pop and posing than there is the aura of traditional musical theatre concertizing.

The large amount of included banter between the two brings an atmosphere somewhere between folksy and Vegas lounge, with the pair chatting to the audience at Feinstein's/54 Below in Manhattan. They finish each other's sentences, overlap spoken lines, and ramble a bit, suggesting that their comments aren't tightly scripted, but outlined in advance. It isn't especially "jokey" or full of anecdotes or wit—or insights—but we do get a sense that they are as upbeat (just like almost all their song selections), kind of down to earth, and enjoy performing for an audience and speaking directly to them. But it may be in their musical interaction that we see a fuller measure of their interactive chemistry and mutual affection.

The recording begins with a hard-sell "let's get this party started" mash-up of three Motown numbers in duet: "You're All I Need to Get By," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (both of these written by another performing married couple, Valerie Simpson and the late Nikolas Ashford), and "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," which I think maybe should have stopped sooner, as it kind of goes on and on. The arrangement milks the two numbers' sharing the first word of their titles ("ain't") to go back and forth between those two songs. While it's all one big medley, the beginning of each of these three old faves is tracked separately, thus indicated as tracks 1, 2, and 3 of 17 tracks—but if you count this Motown mix as one item, it means the total number of sung pieces is just nine. That seems kind of skimpy, and the six separately tracked talk segments start to feel like a lot, but not all are lengthy (lots of included cheers and applause take up time, too).

The couple had different guests on different nights of their run, and the one included here is Andrew Logan, and Andy Karl sits out a number to let his wife duet with the guest du jour on a cheery, bouncy "I'm Your Baby Tonight."

Besides Groundhog Day, Karl revisits two other roles and shows welcome gravitas and guts. There's his Rocky ode to determination, "Keep on Standing," and also something from his time in Hunka Hunks Burnin' Love, a revue featuring Elvis Presley's songbook. This cues one of the best of that lot, the pleading "If I Can Dream"; it's combined with Orfeh's thoroughly enjoyable and juicy sample of one of her theatre roles as she recalls the likable "Like a Nail." This selection, from off-Broadway's The Great American Trailer Park Musical, is successful as a believable, throbbing anthem about perseverance with a mood of serious intent while all throughout using a silly play on words inspired by a commercially advertised product—Lee Press-On Nails. The lyric goes, "I'm gonna make like a nail and press on!" Like the song from Rocky, it's definitely about stick-to-it-iveness.

The fine five-piece band consists of Micah Burgess (guitar), Colin Dean (bass), Jeremy Yaddaw (percussion), Britt Bonney (keyboard and backing vocals), and Steven Jamail (piano, conductor, music arranger, co-vocal arranger with Orfeh). The other back-up vocalist is Tim Kodres. Those who have one foot in pop and one foot on stage in show tunes, and like to see their musical theatre faves who also enjoy being performing citizens of both worlds, are bound to like Legally Bound.



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