Nancy Salz – April, 2017
There is too much to like in Groundhog Day, the musical:
The little white houses with brightly lit windows that look like paper cutouts against a deep-blue, early-night sky. During the overture, they descend from the stage’s rafters and slide in from the wings to visually introduce us to the town of Punxsutawney, PA. The effect is enchanting. And it’s just the first of many visual delights in this imaginative production.
The overture. How lovely to have an overture! So many new musicals forget about this special theatrical hors d’oeuvre. The bouncy overture to Groundhog Day raises our spirits and puts us in the mood. (And this in spite of the audience members who refuse to shut up or turn off their cell phones because they think the show hasn’t started yet.)
The wonderful, droll Andy Karl, that impish, multi-talented singer-comedian who hops out of bed and gets dressed as each new, same Groundhog Day begins – at least a dozen times. Maybe more. One minute Karl’s an arrogant fop, then a despairing, angry, punching depressive and finally a kind and loving man. Karl just won a well-deserved Olivier Award for this performance.
If you’ve seen the classic movie, you know the story. Phil Connors (Karl), a Pittsburgh weatherman, reluctantly heads to Punxsutawney to cover the annual Groundhog Day festivities with his assistant producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss, who has a beautiful voice but too small a stage presence) and his camera man Larry (Vishal Vaidya). Phil feels superior to his assignment and the town he decides is filled with hicks. Suddenly a blizzard begins – a blizzard that he did not predict! – and his little van, hilariously almost the size of a toy spotlighted on a stage filled with snow, can go nowhere except back to Punxsutawney.
For reasons unexplained, perhaps payback for Phil’s contemptuousness, he is destined to relive the day over and over again until he gets it right. He is trapped in a time warp, and each day he learns something new but also ultimately realizes that no matter how obnoxious his actions, he never has to pay for them. He even tries to commit suicide, but the next day, there he is getting dressed again. As he meets with Rita each new day, he slowly falls in love. But even after spending the night together, he awakens the next day to find her gone, and not because she left.
He meets certain characters each day like the nerdy Ned Ryerson (a spot-on John Sanders), his former high school classmate who’s now an insurance salesman; Nancy (a terrific Rebecca Faulkenberry), whom he chases after. And in one of the most inventive and funny drunken barroom scenes ever staged and sung, he carries on with Gus and Ralph (the unsurpassed Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee, respectively). That they decide to drive after stumbling out of the bar leads to an amazingly staged scene that I will not spoil.
In fact, the staging by Matthew Warchus, the director, and Peter Darling, the choreographer, is stunning. The scenery (Rob Howell) and staging play with each other, and those moments sometimes feel like a magic act (illusions by Paul Kieve). Everything moves so quickly in this energetic show, you cannot always follow who moved where on the multi-turntable stage. And that is often the point.
The book by Danny Rubin is filled with great humor. You know that each day will be a repeat, but you don’t know how Phil The Weatherman will change, how an old scene will be made new. Each new day doesn’t always start at the beginning. Some short scenes are repeated three or four times in a row, and each time with a new joke. The music and lyrics by Tim Minchin are sometimes impressive and other times merely very good! Only the song at the top of the second act, “Playing Nancy,” truly stuck out.
But, as stated earlier, there is simply too much to like. This show, built on repetition, becomes mid-second act, too repetitious. The movie was about 1 hour and 45 minutes. The musical, seen in preview, is about 45 minutes longer including the intermission. The biggest musical numbers – one complete with tap-boots! – are toward the end of the show. We in the audience are nearly exhausted by then and growing weary of the story conceit. It’s amazing that the cast isn’t exhausted too. Nevertheless, it will be a tough task deciding what to cut no matter how much the show needs to be shortened.
Groundhog Day, which just won a best-musical Olivier Award, is wonderfully creative and entertaining. I couldn’t decide which I enjoyed more: the production or Andy Karl. If properly shortened, Goundhog Day could be a show-length showstopper.
Book by Danny Rubin, Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin, Directed by Matthew Warchus, Scenic and Costume Design by Rob Howell, Music Supervision, Orchestrations and Dance Arrangements by Christopher Nightingale, Choreography by Peter Darling, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Sound Design by Simon Baker, Illusions by Paul Kieve.
Starring Andy Karl, Barrett Doss, Rebecca Faulkenberry, John Sanders, Andrew Call, Raymond J. Lee, with a supporting cast of eighteen and an orchestra of twelve.