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Groundhog Day

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 17, 2017

Groundhog Day the Musical. Book by Danny Rubin. Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin. Directed by Matthew Warchus. Choreographed by Peter Darling. Co-Choreographer Ellen Kane. Scenic & costume design by Rob Howell. Music supervision, orchestrations & dance arrangements by Christopher Nightingale. Illusions by Paul Kieve. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Simon Baker. Hair & make-up design by Campbell Young Associates. Video design by Andrzej Goulding. Cast: Andy Karl, Barrett Doss, with 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, Natalie Wisdom.
Theatre: August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Andy Karl
Photo by Joan Marcus

Andy Karl looked to be in visible pain at the end of the Friday night press performance of Groundhog Day, the new musical at the August Wilson. As you've undoubtedly heard by now, a misplaced landing coming off a leapfrog in the climactic number "Philanthrophy" led to a knee injury that forced Karl to lean on a knobby walking stick for the final few scenes, avoiding the terrors of the set's myriad revolves and the dancing performers all around him. Though he returned to the show for Monday's opening, there was at least one positive aspect to what could easily have been a tragedy: It provided a much-needed and deeply affecting glimpse of Karl at his most emotionally naked and vulnerable, when there were no tricks left for him to rely on.

Nothing this terrible should ever be required for a musical or its lead actor to tap into clarifying, heartbreaking honesty, but such is sadly the case with this overproduced, overwritten, overacted, and over-everything-elsed adaptation of the revered 1993 Harold Ramis film comedy of the same title. Danny Rubin, who wrote the screenplay with Ramis, has provided the book, and teamed up with Matilda collaborators Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Peter Darling (choreography), and Matthew Warchus (direction). Together, they've buried most of the movie's abundant charms beneath a heap of hypercaffeinated glitziness that honors neither the Broadway musical form nor Karl's inspiring work ethic.

This would seem an impossible turn of events for a movie that revels in the impact of minuscule changes on individuals and the universe. It concerns Phil Connors (played by pitch-perfect Everyman extraordinaire Bill Murray), a big-city TV news weatherman compelled to cover the down-home Groundhog Day festival (which he loathes) in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but who finds himself caught in a time loop requiring him to relive February 2 over and over from 6:00 AM on. In so doing, he learns to observe his own shallowness, the shortsighted nature of his goals, and the value of forsaking of-the-moment thrills in favor of more lasting satisfaction, in this case a romance with his producer, Rita, whom he must escort from revulsion to love in only a single day (albeit with thousands of practice sessions).

If the big underlying issues and the strong philosophical bent brand this property as an obvious candidate for musicalization, it's less clear what purpose is served by stamping out its signature soul. But the show's curtain-raising bit is determined to make us hate Phil (Karl) from the outset: a video (the gorgeous work of Andrzej Goulding) showing Phil mocking his work and his latest assignment on-camera, while an unseen director berates him for his lack of professionalism. His disgust may be funny, but it's neither endearing nor suggestive of complexities we can't wait to uncover. (In the movie, Phil is far more serious about his work, despite seeing it as a springboard to bigger and better things.)

Andy Karl with the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Phil's time in Punxsutawney, which begins soon after, all but reinforces Phil's urban prejudices. A comically obtuse and obese man small-talks him outside his bedroom door. The bed-and-breakfast owner is a needling mother-like busybody. Two other guests are screechy, obsequious, and just-plain annoying. Ned, the insurance salesman who knows Phil from high school, is a greasy creep. Everyone in the local diner—the waitress, the patrons, the bumbling sheriff who announces the transportation-choking blizzard, his assistant who screams into a megaphone for no reason—is portrayed as too dumb to live.

Much of this may be attributed to Warchus and his performers, apparently operating on the corrosive and idiotic notion that musical-theatre acting cannot (or shouldn't) be both big and true. More than that, it introduces a major conceptual flaw by making Phil a victim rather than the perpetuator of his own damnation. Who wouldn't hate people as vapid and plasticky as these? Phil rejects them in the movie because he doesn't understand them, giving him a journey to undertake: to realize his own humanity as well as everyone else's. Here, he's an archetype of crisply creased evil doing battle with a townful of stereotype-embodying hicks, so there's no reason to root for his transformation, even if it means succeeding with Rita (Barrett Doss), the closest thing to a satellite of sanity in his orbit.

Even so, their relationship's best moments are temporary oases along the mad dash that is this musical. Providing no time for you (or anyone involved) to breathe, Warchus and Darling load the action with sprawling dance showcases; fancy scenic tricks like a stylized car chase; a magic-tinted death montage (with handsome illusions by Paul Kieve); a rock-concert rave that involves, among other activities, a giant groundhog playing the drums; and more. But all this frenzy occurs for no dramatic or theatrical reason, and it doesn't so much create energy as it does sap it; it's exhausting watching any show try harder than necessary to engage you, all while missing the underlying point.

Andy Karl with Barrett Doss
Photo by Joan Marcus

Rubin hasn't captured it, either. He's been mostly faithful to his screenplay, even if some choices introduce new plot questions or inconsistencies. (Phil now works for a weather TV series? And Rita doesn't travel with him to Punxsutawney in the van? Huh?) But most of the absorbing details, and the quiet urgency of Phil's plight, have vanished within the flash. Quiet is also not Minchin's stock in trade, as his songs here are louder, more emphatic, and less distinguished than his velvety Matilda earworms. He's overcome the main hurdle of ensuring that you don't get tired of hearing certain phrases and sections of songs as they repeat endlessly during Phil's tenure in the loop; there's enough variation to achieve a general sense of movement within temporal stasis.

When he zooms in, however, things get bland quickly. The townsfolk have their requisite dopey beige number, and Phil has his one-dimensional holier-than-thou solo. ("One little store selling plaid shirts and rakes, and it's / Huntin' and fishin' and half-pounder steaks" runs one of its cleverer passages.) His "what's happening?" spot equates small-town doctors with quacks and Scientologists. He sings a throat-shredder called "Hope" that derives its comedy from being about not killing himself while he attempts suicide several dozen times. He approaches thoughtfulness with "Everything About You," where he rattles off Rita's positive qualities, and the two feign connection in the generic "If I Had My Time Again." ("Sometimes / It's like I'm stumbling forward / Hustled forward / Jostled from behind by time.") And it's best not to ask why Ned and one of Phil's discarded conquests, Nancy, each get big solos (the latter the inexplicable Act II opener) despite having no critical importance to the plot.

David Holcenberg's 11-piece band and Christopher Nightingale's orchestrations make them all sound nice enough. And Rob Howell has provided astute visuals for both the always-in-motion sets and costumes, which have been aggressively but not unattractively lighted by Hugh Vanstone. But only Doss lights sparks of actual feeling, hinting at Rita's flesh and blood. Doss plays her down rather than up, keeping a few secrets rather than putting them all on aggravated display, so there's always more to unlock. Her songs are among the score's tritest ("One day, someday, my prince may come," she sings at one point, "But it doesn't seem likely / And even if he came and he liked me / It's likely / He'd be / Not quite / My type"), but no one is more real.

This includes Karl, whose entire characterization of Phil is built on a smarmy smirk and an inflated-chest bravado that may have been right for his far-better turns in On the Twentieth Century and Rocky, but here register as calculated and off-putting. The unquenchable angry tinge in his otherwise precise and piercing singing voice, doesn't help; this Phil comes across not so much as a slumming news personality in need of a wake-up call as a take-no-prisoners hedge-fund manager targeting his next big account.

Karl was transformed after his accident, though, when his natural humility and heart became visible beneath the lacquer for the very first time. That man is one you wouldn't mind hanging out with time and time again. But for Karl's impenetrable Phil and the rest of this inchoate Groundhog Day, once is more than enough.


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