Groundhog Day – August Wilson Theatre, New York

Groundhog DayAugust Wilson Theatre

Barrett Doss and Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, New York. Picture: Joan Marcus

Groundhog Day continues at the August Wilson Theatre, New York.

Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

Groundhog Day has ambled onto Broadway, sporting the triumphs of its world premiere in London, including Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical, Andy Karl.

The show made more news when Karl tore a knee ligament in a preview some three days before the official Broadway opening and had to miss some performances. With the help of a knee brace, he was able to take stage on the official opening night. (Only actors appearing on the opening night of a show are eligible for the coveted Tony Awards.)

And the drama continues. At the performance reviewed, an insert in the Playbill said that Karl’s role of Phil Connors would be played by the understudy Andrew Call. But then a pre-curtain loudspeaker announcement told the audience that the insert was in error, and a boisterously happy round of applause and cheers greeted the assurance that Karl would ‘indeed’ be performing the role.

And perform he did, delivering a heroic turn at the centre of this whirlwind of a show. Except for the very apparent knee brace (Karl’s character spends a lot of time in his undies, and the brace has even been worked into the dialogue), there was no hint of an injured performer, as Karl, scene after scene after scene, hopped out of bed, slipped into his trousers and bounded about the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, covering its annual Groundhog Day celebration.

That’s a day when the rodent crawls out of his hole, and if he views the sun it means six more weeks of wintry weather. It’s a patently absurd way of forecasting weather, but the festive doings mean a lot to the town and the fans who have embraced it.

For Phil, a narcissistic celebrity television weatherman in the big city of Pittsburgh, his assignment to cover the event is an annual insult. He’s sarcastic in his reportage and snarky and curt to the townspeople and his own colleagues, including his new producer, the business-minded but attractive Rita.

The fates, though, seem to have Phil in their sites. As in the well-appreciated 1993 movie on which the show is based, Phil is forced to live this Groundhog Day over and over again.

At first, it frees him to be even snarkier, then the repetition and the limitations it imposes on life become nightmarish, so nightmarish that he attempts an epic series of suicides. They are unsuccessful, of course, as each morning he awakes to relive 2 February – that’s Groundhog Day – once more.

Finally, as his feelings for Rita bloom into true love, Phil learns the error of his ways. He rushes about town to do kindly things. The curse is lifted, and with Rita in his arms, he is able to watch the sun rise on 3 February.

Karl, who has already garnered Tony nominations for his work in the revival of On the Twentieth Century and his assaying of the title role in Rocky, demonstrates his Olivier worthiness throughout. He handles the intricacies of Tim Minchin’s lyric-heavy, not-so-melodic score with impressive ease;, moves with grace or comedic flair, depending on what’s called for; and delivers comic lines with panache. Even with Phil’s behaviour is at its most despicable, Karl keeps him ingratiating.

In other prominent roles, Barrett Doss nicely enriches the unflappable working-woman vibe of Rita with a splash of feminine appeal. Like Karl, she moves gingerly through the long monologues set to music that Minchin has created for the character.

As Ned, Phil’s old school chum from the past, John Sanders has an affecting moment with the rendering of the mournful ballad ‘Night Will Come’, a poetic mediation on loss, life and love, that’s one of the score’s best pieces.

Director Matthew Warchus and choreographer Peter Darling have melded their Broadway company into an energised ensemble, ripping with high spirits through the ever-increasingly frantic and darker replays of the story.

Unfortunately, the book by Danny Rubin, who wrote the original story and co-wrote the movie screenplay with Harold Ramis, is somewhat undermined by the cartoonish costuming and playing of minor roles.

Too much of the time, the denizens of Punxsutawney come across as simply dolts deserving of Phil’s scorn. For example, the increasingly fervent singing of the holiday anthems – such as ‘There Will Be Sun’, which sounds like a deconstruction of Annie’s ‘Tomorrow’ – becomes fairly irritating.

On the plus side, though, are a host of impressive production values. In contrast to his costumes, the scenic design of Rob Howell is truly enchanting, depicting in shifting miniatures the houses and welcoming lighted windows of the town.

The picturesque reassembling of the bedroom in which Phil starts each day has an air of sleight of hand. It enhances the fable-like quality of the story, as does a plentiful but gentle snowfall.

Finally, there is that breathtaking sunrise. Coming at the end of the show, it provides a welcome note of quiet in an enterprise that sometimes seems aimed more at wearing an audience out rather than entertaining them. There’s certainly enough in it to make you understand why it was blessed with an Olivier, but then again…

Ron Cohen

Readers may also be interested in:

War Paint – Nederlander Theatre, New York – Review

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