Review: Not Just the Same Old: ‘Groundhog Day’ on Broadway
By Andrew Koenig, Contributing Writer, April 18, 2017
The main challenge of a musical based on a movie about the same day happening over and over? How to make it not annoying and repetitive. The creators of Groundhog Day have avoided these pitfalls and made a winsome Broadway musical that’s a cut above the average movie-to-musical adaptation.
The show kicks off with a series of strong ensemble numbers (“There Will Be Sun,” “Small Town, U.S.A.,” “Punxsutawney Phil”) about weatherman Phil Connors’ (Andy Karl) ill-fated trip to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony. Karl is pitch perfect in the role famously originated by Bill Murray: a pasty grouch ultimately amenable to changing his ways. Especially strong are the denizens of Punxsutawney; they spin, absurdly, with their hands in the air, extolling the virtues of small-town America (“There is no town greater in the USA / than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day!”) while Phil Connors breaks the fourth wall, sharing sarcastic jibes about Middle America’s hoi polloi with the audience. His cute-meet with Rita (Barrett Doss) goes exactly as it does in the movie, and the musical’s homage to the film’s beloved quotations and gags garners the expected chuckles from the audience.
Only later does Groundhog Day establish, sometimes falteringly, its own personality and pathos. This is largely thanks to the dynamic collaboration between Danny Rubins, who’s famous for the movie and little else, director Matthew Warchus, and composer and lyricist Tim Minchin of Matilda (one of the finest film-based musicals in recent memory). It’s got heart, like Rubins’ movie, but Minchin puts a new spin on the story with his clever use of musical recurrence. The initial ensemble numbers become leitmotifs, embroidered and tinkered with as the musical progresses. On the second Groundhog Day, beats are syncopated, a minor theme haunts the score, and occasional lyrical slips and additions capture Phil Connors’ frustration. By round three, the tempo is nightmarishly breakneck. By round four, once Phil Connors is wise to his situation, a louche, jazzy theme takes over. Dancers slink around, and Phil Connors assumes a new suavity as he embraces his life of delimited omniscience.
The musical and choreographic change-ups of these repeat Groundhog Days make the show. In fact, the initial scenes, which replicate a few too many punch lines from the movie, dim in comparison to the winking Broadway fun that follows. Groundhog Day lags somewhat during the second act, where some questionable solos (“Playing Nancy,” “Hope,” “Night Will Come”) cause the story to stall. But the ending is sweet, the kiss that breaks the spell is just right, and Phil Connors does learn his lesson—be kind, rewind—through a funny and heartwarming, if occasionally uneven, musical.
Editor’s Note: Andy Karl was injured during the Friday evening (April 14) preview performance; the following Saturday matinee was cancelled and his understudy went on for that evening’s performance. Mr. Karl performed on Monday’s opening night (April 17). Our reviewer attended a preview performance prior to Mr. Karl’s injury.
Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street. Opened on April 17, 2017 for an open run. Music and lyrics by Tim Minchin; book by Danny Rubins, based on the film Groundhog Day. Directed by Matthew Warchus; scenic and costume design by Rob Howell; lighting design by Hugh Vanstone; choreography by Peter Darling; Ellen Kane co-choreographer; sound design by Simon Baker; video design by Andrzej Goulding; hair and wig design by Campbell Young Associates; production stage manager: David Lober. Cast: Heather Ayers, Andrew Call, Gerard Canonico, Rheaume Crenshaw, Barrett Doss, Michael Fatica, Rebecca Faulkenberry, Katy Geraghty, Taylor Iman Jones, Andy Karl, Tari Kelly, Josh Lamon, Raymond J Lee, Joseph Medeiros, Sean Montgomery, William Parry, Jenna Rubaii, John Sanders, Vishal Vaidya, Travis Waldschmidt.
Cover: Andy Karl (center) and the cast of ‘Groundhog Day;’ photo: Joan Marcus.