Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Musical In Need of a Do-Over

Review: Groundhog Day

Barrett Doss and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theare.
The plot of Groundhog Day revolves around a weatherman forced to live the same day over and over again until he finally gets it right, breaking the loop and allowing him to move on. The creative team behind this new Broadway musical, many of whom were also involved in 2013's wildly inventive Matilda, seem to have encountered a similar conundrum in their writing. The show doesn't really start to click until well into its second act, and once it finds its narrative voice the musical promptly ends. And while it feels somewhat wrong to criticize a show built around the concept of repetition for being, well, repetitive, one has to imagine that some of the invention and creative spark of the last 20 minutes could have been brought into the proceeding 2 hours.

The show opens with the cantankerous Phil Connors (Andy Karl in full leading man mode) being forced to take an assignment covering the Groundhog Day festivities in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Shipped off to a small town he detests with a fairly green associate producer named Rita (Barrett Doss offering the right combination of sass and sympathy), Phil finds himself snowed in by an unexpected blizzard. The big city forecaster can't wait for the day to be over and be on his way, but to his horror when he awakens the next morning it is still February 2nd. No matter what Phil does or doesn't do during the day, every morning the loop resets, leaving him to ponder the unpleasant possibility that he may relive this day forever.

The high concept setup allows Groundhog Day to tackle some surprisingly dark material. Stuck reliving the same day on repeat, Phil goes through every imaginable reaction to the news, from horror to hedonism to depression and more. Yet rather than fully embracing its darker instincts or satirizing them with biting comedy, the show seems stuck in the same kind of limbo as its main character, unable to satisfactorily reach either tonal destination despite multiple valiant attempts. Danny Rubin's book is structured like a warped romantic comedy, but both the romantic and comedic aspects are only present is short bursts during an otherwise dull affair. (Rubin also wrote the screenplay for the beloved Bill Murray film on which the musical is based.)

Tim Minchin's score is equally confused, unable to settle on what it wants to be. The verbose songs are arranged and harmonized in such a way that the lyrics are often difficult to understand; the first three songs in particular are sung multiple times throughout the evening and I'm still not sure I caught all the words. Yet the songs also aren't melodically interesting enough to hold your attention without comprehending the words, so every time a musical number appears it seems to interrupt the narrative rather than enhance it. Minchin also devotes several numbers to minor characters we neither know nor care about, the most egregious example being the Act II opener "Playing Nancy." If Nancy were providing some commentary on the show's overarching narrative or themes it might prove to be a nice change of pace, but the song is entirely about her journey even though she has little to do or say either before or after.

Further compounding the show's narrative woes is Matthew Warchus' hyperactive direction, which rarely allows the actors time to stand still and focus on the emotion of their scenes. Although to be fair, standing still on Rob Howell's overly elaborate set is clearly a safety hazard, with so many set pieces moving in and out on the five(!) turntables that staying in place too long is a sure way to get injured. All of this technical wizardry might be impressively complex, but like many a British megamusical before it Groundhog Day ultimately becomes about the set rather than the story or characters.

The one constant among the show's disparate elements is the sparkling class, who are effortlessly winsome and entirely believable despite reenacting the exact same scene multiple times each night. Anchoring the production is newly minted Olivier Award winner Andy Karl, whose Phil Connors transforms slowly and seamlessly from a self centered ass into a warmhearted philanthropist. Karl's utterly charming performance has an ease about it that never betrays just how hard he is working, and the only knock against it is the role doesn't allow much of the overt comedy he's proven so adept at in the past. He is perfectly commented by Barrett Doss as the spunky Rita, and their chemistry makes even some of the clunkier scenes breeze by.

But ultimately, their alluring performances cannot fully salvage a show that doesn't really justify the need for musicalizing the beloved Bill Murray movie. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never seen the Groundhog Day film, but a truly great adaptation of any source material should not rely on one's fondness of the original. It should stand on its own, entertaining newcomers while providing fans with an added layer of appreciation, something this incredibly busy stage adaptation doesn't quite manage.


  1. Given that it's not an adaptation of classic literature, a celebration of accepting culture that gives a "take that" to the current president, or a heartrending story of loneliness and grief; this probably the least likely show to win Best Musical this year.

    1. Having now seen all the Best Musical nominees (reviews coming soon), I'd say its just the least successful show of the nominees. That's going to have a lot more to do with its loss than any Tony voter politics. :-)

  2. Some people think Andy Karl might pull an upset win over Ben Platt. How realistically do you think that will happen?

    1. I think that is an extremely generous assessment of Andy Karl's chances. Don't get me wrong, he is quite good, but he is not on the same level as Platt. If Karl wins, it would be more of a cumulative win for his great work over the years rather than for this specific role.