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Review: ‘Groundhog Day’ at the August Wilson Theatre

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Andy Karl is a delightful musical theatre leading man, but he’s been having a bit of bad luck lately. During a late preview of Groundhog Day, his latest outing on stage, he suffered severe damage to his left knee, but with his determination to return to the show as soon as possible, he was back onstage April 22, and I can assure you he’s not allowing a leg brace to slow him down one bit. He remains a charming and valuable leading man and he delivers once again.

Karl is playing the affable big city weatherman Phil Connors who is not happy in the tiny town of Puxsutawney, Pennsylvania, even though the townspeople are decent folks whose only crime is that they don’t offer him challenge, excitement and variety. They do offer courtesy and friendship and respect but Connors is restless until he learns to reach out and try a little kindness, to add a little humor, and ultimately to join them with the help of a girl called Rita Hanson who makes him understand what happiness really is.

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Bill Murray made a success playing this role in the movie, and here’s the rub. Andy Karl has got to stop doing musical theatre remakes of successful films, all of which were better off on screen than onstage. On Broadway he gave a fine performance as Rocky Balboa in the musical Rocky, based on the hit film of the same name. In Saturday Night Fever he tackled the role that made John Travolta a movie star. Both musical stage versions had brief runs. And in Legally Blonde and The Wedding Singer the results were the same. All I can wish for this most genial performer is that he find a role that is his very own, or at least wait until the currently fashionable transition of movies-into-musicals supplies him one that at least matches if not improves on their film success. Alas, Groundhog Day is not the musical to accomplish that.

The book is by Danny Rubin whose original script won him a BAFTA Award for best screenplay and the Critics Circle Award as Best Screenwriter of the year. The musical was critically acclaimed in London, but then so were a number of shows that did not take well to the Atlantic crossing. Tim Minchin is the composer/lyricist who’s appeared as a musical comedian in several films, theatres, and arena tours. He was noticed for his first show score, the successful Matilda, the British import that just closed a very long run on Broadway. But even though he has the same Matthew Warchus as director and Peter Darling as choreographer, all I could do was marvel at how much more satisfying their first outing was.

It would seem that in dealing with the unappealing tale of a man who must repeat each day as though he had never lived it the day before, the bloom is off the rose that once blossomed on screen. This expansive musical adaptation of the movie is more successful at flinging out technical fireworks than offering interesting characters living in a gem of a story. As the day repeats itself for the third time, I did not find the third cup of coffee offered by his housekeeper or the third greeting from an acquaintance from high school or the third ringing of a bothersome alarm clock hysterically funny.

Barrett Doss and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lights flashed, scenery flew, colorful cartoon characters in colorful costumes seemed constantly to be marching and jumping about, but I didn’t connect with any of the supporting cast, and I could not rustle up more than mild curiosity about Phil Connors and his lady love Rita Hanson. Andy Karl and Barrett Doss play these two with good looks, considerable charm, and fine voices that beg for melodies that are simply not there. The thirty or so musical numbers seem more like bits of the story with notes attached. Once in a while a beauty (Rebecca Faulkenberry) who’s learned how to attract men by “Playing Nancy”, sings about that and momentarily catches our ear while touching our heart. Ned Ryerson is effective in one of the roles that repeats itself three times. But all in all, the gimmick of the constant repeats is not able to hold our interest in a story that just wants us to live for today and not worry about tomorrow.

There are some sensational special effects. A van approaching in the distance gets a hand. A two police-car chase that ends in a crash is another bit of lighting wizardry. A rising sun that announces a new day dawning makes a charming tableau featuring the young couple, who are seated with their backs to us, enjoying the announcement of a new beginning. Rob Howell’s scenic and costume designs, along with the videos, lighting, sound, and illusions created by Andrzej Goulding, Hugh Vanstone, Simon Baker, and Paul Kieve all contribute mightily to the look and sound of the show. But the play’s the thing, and so is the score, and for me, despite the excellent production they’ve been given, they were disappointing.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre – 245 West 52nd Street, in New York, NY. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or (800) 447-7400, or purchase them online.

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