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Groundhog Day

Razzle-dazzle abounds in this decent musical adaptation of the celebrated film.  Andy Karl is terrific as the cranky TV weatherman trapped in a time loop.

Andy Karl in a scene from “Groundhog Day” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Andy Karl’s magnetism elevates this decent and sugary musical adaptation of the celebrated film.  Groundhog Day is heavy on razzle-dazzle, but really doesn’t capture the profound depth of its source material.

Stephen Sondheim has said that he was inspired to adapt the film, but ultimately felt that it couldn’t be improved.  In musical theater fantasyland, this would be a perfect subject for the genius of Bob Fosse.  Instead, high caliber theater professionals have turned out a mildly entertaining production.nwriter Danny Rubin’s original concept, became in collaboration with director and co-screenwriter Harold Ramis, the 1993 dark film comedy, Groundhog Day.  Popular at the box office, it was critically acclaimed and was awarded several prizes including the British Academy of Film and Television Art for Best Original Screenplay.  It’s considered to be a modern classic among many film enthusiasts.

Cranky Pittsburgh television news weatherman Phil Connors is on his annual, hated assignment to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover whether the famous groundhog Phil sees his shadow or not, signifying an early spring or a continued winter.

The metaphysical plot twist is that Connors wakes up every morning and it is Groundhog Day again.  He is unexplainably doomed to relive that day with its irritating incidents and annoying townspeople over and over. His ingrained sarcasm wanes over the course of this repetitive situation, and he grows more philosophical.

Andy Karl and Barrett Doss in a scene from “Groundhog Day” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

With the knowledge of this, he makes alterations in his actions, but no matter what happens, it still starts all over again the next day.  There has been speculation by cineastes that this mysterious predicament lasts many years, adding a Biblical layer to it.  “For me it had to be—I don’t know. A hundred years. A lifetime,” Mr. Rubin has stated.

This Kafkaesque and Becketian premise was memorably evoked by Bill Murray’s towering performance as Phil Connors, with his characteristic blend of the sardonic laced with pathos.

Mr. Karl gives a captivating performance that’s a whirlwind of energy, charisma and exceptional singing and dancing.  It’s a commanding star turn that cannot quite compensate for the show’s hollowness.  When getting dressed in the mornings, Karl’s leg brace was visible at the performance attended.  This was the result of an injury that he had on April 14, 2017, while performing, near the end of the show.

In reconceiving his screenplay for the book of this show, Rubin maintains the basic plot, but adds numerous extraneous situations and songs for minor characters.   These additions include a scene of Connors in a hospital getting an enema. Focusing on tangents diminishes the terror of his situation, and it all becomes a superficial entertainment with dashes of seriousness.

Tim Minchin’s score is a pleasant blend of jazzy, pop and Country & Western music, but his lyrics are rudimentary and peppered with profanity.  The strident sound design by Simon Baker does it no favors.

Andy Karl (center) and the cast of “Groundhog Day” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Director Matthew Warchus’ dynamic staging is an inventive and vibrant display of stagecraft with riotous sight gags galore.   Peter Darling and Ellen Kane’s choreography has plenty of flash, and a marching band’s wholesomeness becomes eerie due to their repetitive appearances.  Finn Caldwell’s additional movement also adds choreographic flair.

The dazzling scenic design by Rob Howell is a clever and arresting assortment of miniatures, turntables and sliding walls that represent the town.  There’s a hilarious car chase with models held up by actors.  Mr. Howell’s costume design is equally as accomplished with its flourishes of Americana.

Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design, Paul Kieve’s illusions and Andrzej Goulding’s video design all contribute to the show’s strong visual dimension.

The talented ensemble all depicts their cartoony roles with excellent characterizations, but no one really makes much of an impact.

Barrett Doss as Connors’ producer Rita (played by Andie MacDowell in the film) is delightful.  Ms. Doss’ girlish charm and lovely singing is a great counter to Karl’s cynicism, and their eventual attraction is credible.

John Sanders and Andy Karl in a scene from “Groundhog Day” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Audiences who have never seen the movie, or those who have dim memories of it, could very well find much to marvel at in Groundhog Day.  The 2016 London production won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical for Karl.

Admirers of the film will sorely miss Sonny and Cher’s increasingly cloying rendition of “I Got You Babe” blaring from the clock radio that wakes Connors up every morning. The snippet here of a generic radio show doesn’t come close to conveying that Twilight Zone-style sense of dread.

The exasperating, geeky insurance salesman, Ned Ryerson (played by Stephen Tobolowsky in the movie), who gets repeatedly punched in the face is depicted by John Sanders, but without the psychological menace.

The phrase “Groundhog Day” has entered the general consciousness with the comparable cultural significance of “Waiting for Godot.”  This treatment of the original work is adeptly presented but it’s lacking in emotional resonance.

Groundhog Day (through September 17, 2017)

August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit http://www.groundhogdaymusical.com

Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (401 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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