The 1993 film Groundhog Day is something of a cult classic. When masterfully wry Bill Murray (as weatherman Phil Connors) is forced to relive the ersatz holiday (until he gets a heart and gets it right) in mawkishly chipper Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, audiences reveled in every quip and Machiavellian move.
The good news is that Andy Karl is up to the task in this, a musical version. Not since 2015’s On the Twentieth Century has Karl had the opportunity to showcase his comic chops as well as leading man vocals. Despite a knee injury that briefly sidelined the actor, he adroitly employs physical humor as well as superb timing. At one point this evening, the actor lays his thoroughly braced leg across a counter stool attempting to seduce the character’s associate producer Rita Hanson (the capable, but undistinguished Barrett Doss). Onstage virtually throughout, Karl holds the piece together with unflagging charisma.
The Company- Andy Karl, center
Also in Column A, book (and earlier screenplay) writer Danny Rubin maintains his hero’s dark disposition and wit, Rita’s resistance (somewhat updated with a mourned loss of sweetness), and the loopy friendliness of townspeople.
The look of this production under Rob Howell’s stewardship, is often inspired. “It just better be a big van,” Connors snaps when told he won’t be traveling south by limousine. We next see an irresistible, toy-sized conveyance spot-lit on the empty stage as it makes its way through night fog. A credible truck frame is literally built around Connors and two locals out on a bender. Chased by police in their own faux car-fronts replete with flashing lights, three vehicles shrink to 16” versions racing through a town of streets with seemingly floating houses.
The six-foot plus groundhog never fails to amuse. A revolving stage is used with great success as is the rotating set piece revealing Connor’s bed and breakfast bedroom. (Caveats: local women with whom the weatherman briefly frolics wear out of place, glow-in-the-dark lingerie and two townspeople wear obvious fat suits .)
Video by Andrzej Goulding, impressionistic Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, and nifty illusions by Paul Kieve add to delight.
Now for the disappointing and unfortunately prevailing Column B. Songwriter Tim Minchin, who in my opinion did a brilliant job with Matilda, offers mostly tuneless numbers with prose that unsuccessfully fights to fit music. Though lyrics can be extremely clever, they don’t sing. Several rock n’roll numbers arrive cacophonous and as if in the wrong show. (Generic choreography by Peter Darling doesn’t help.)
Both ostensibly misjudged town hottie Nancy (Rebecca Faulenberry) and Phil’s former schoolmate Ned (John Sanders), minor characters, are given entirely superfluous numbers. The visit to a doctor in the film is blown out of proportion into a long, forced number featuring attempts by practitioners from faith healers to psychologists. A carnival ride is added without logic or context.
Barrett Doss, Andy Karl
Some of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of Director Michael Warchus whose skill and imagination with Matilda plus a long list of other material, promised way better. To give him his due, Warchus deftly conveys repetition and Phil’s radically changing activity/attitude over the passing of days – though a parentheses of successive suicide attempts by company members dressed as Phil seems excessive as we’ve already seen the hero himself try and fail.
The only person with developed personality traits, however, is Connors. Brief character turns feel walked-through, eschewing opportunities for bright cameos. Ned isn’t geeky enough, the landlady lacks cliché coziness. Rita’s tough cookie persona is one dimensional. Exceptions: Gus (Andrew Call) and Ralph (Raymond J. Lee) showcase appealing quirk in a bar number with Phil and Josh Lamon flickers in and out with some brio.
Judging by audible reaction, not all audience members are familiar with the story which remains appealing, but the work is not up to its creators.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Andy Karl
Groundhog Day-The Musical
Book by Danny Rubin
Music & Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52 Street