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Theatre in Review: Groundhog Day (August Wilson Theatre)

Andy Karl, Barrett Doss. Photo: Joan Marcus

For the record, I attended Groundhog Day on the fateful Friday night when Andy Karl, the star (and the hardest-working man on Broadway), injured his knee, forcing him to hobble through the final two scenes with the aid of a walking stick. Karl has true grit and richly deserved the titanic ovation he received at the show's end. Amazingly, he returned for the opening night performance. We must assume that he is feeling much, much better, for it is impossible to imagine how he could pull off the two-and-a-half-hour, high-speed marathon that is the role of disaffected weatherman Phil Connors unless he is in tip-top shape.

I wish I could say that Groundhog Day is in tip-top shape, but that would be about as accurate as Punxsautawney Phil's prognostications about an additional six weeks of winter. As sometimes happens when a popular film comedy is converted into a Broadway musical, a fragile vehicle gets souped up into a garish hot rod, its casual charms and throwaway humor obscured by layers of shiny chrome and the noise of its additional horsepower. Tons of scenery -- including no fewer than five turntables -- and all sorts of staging gimmicks have been thrown at this aggressively gagged-up entertainment, with little consideration given to the virtues of charm or (until quite late) emotional engagement. Without the presence of Karl --one of the rare musical theatre stars who can function equally well as clown and romantic leading man -- Groundhog Day might be no fun at all.

Danny Rubin, who wrote the film, has adapted the book, which sends Phil, a Pittsburgh-based weatherman, to Punxsautawney, Pennsylvania, to shoot a fluffy news feature about the town's annual ritual featuring a designated groundhog and its shadow. Phil, fed up with his stalled career and sick of dealing with small towns and fawning fans, approaches the assignment in an openly hostile state. The film takes advantage of Bill Murray's famous slow burn and skill at under-one's-breath sarcasm; Karl is assigned number after number that, substituting rudeness for wit, makes him complain lengthily about his lot in life. In a typical sample, he grouses, "I've no qualm at all with your small-town people/I admire their balls, getting out of bed at all/To face another day in a shit-hole this small/All haystacks and horses where there should be golf courses." (At least these lines rhyme, more or less. The songwriter, Tim Minchin, is a surprisingly sloppy lyricist, settling for almost-but-not-quite rhymes like "watercolors of bucolic vistas/Painted by octogenarian spinsters" or "I'm not really one for asking/I'll play whatever role I'm cast in." I wasn't in love with Minchin's score for Matilda, but it certainly had its moments of cleverness; there isn't one lyric in Groundhog Day that made me laugh.)

Then again, the citizens of Punxsautawney and the visiting tourists are the crudest of caricatures of Middle Americans: They have funny clothing, funny walks, and funny cartoon voices that leave you wondering if the actors aren't inhaling helium before walking on stage. (And their accents -- they make the characters in the Cohen brothers' film Fargo sound like RADA graduates.) So irritatingly presented are they that it quickly becomes clear that Phil's contempt for them is nothing compared to that of the show's creative team. This approach proves to be seriously undermining as the plot kicks in and Phil is made to mysteriously relive his day in Punxsautawney over and over. For example, when Rita, Phil's producer, is repeatedly made to view the Groundhog Day festivities and comment, "No one told me it was so much fun," she seems simple-minded. And when Phil slowly becomes a fond benefactor to the locals, you wonder if he hasn't gotten a tiny, little lobotomy.

The whole Groundhog Day scenario proves difficult to realize on stage; the first half of the first act consists of three not-very-interesting numbers repeated three times, with a lot of strenuous stage business -- for example, Phil getting caught up in the drill of a marching band -- repeated to diminishing returns. Rubin and Minchin are not immune to crude, pandering jokes. A number titled "Stuck," in which Phil is improbably attended to by a variety of gurus, healers, and religious figures, contains unfunny bits about monkey foreskins and enemas. During a moment of despair, he shows up at Groundhog Day with a shotgun and slaughters the chorus, in the manner of Newtown or Charleston. In "Philanthropy," Phil, his character transformed, performs a number of good deeds, including delivering a baby, an act he concludes by biting off the umbilical cord.

That Groundhog Day works at all is almost entirely due to Karl, his slick composure and hard-shelled cynicism amusingly done in by the nightmare of being trapped in a community out of a Frank Capra film. Whether wrestling with a clock radio blasting out a too-cheery morning broadcast; cooking up, out of sheer boredom, increasingly outlandish copy for his endlessly repeated television report; or, his character transformed, frantically attempting to stop the tiniest mishap from befalling the town's citizens, Karl is the show's energy cell, its main source of mirth. He can't make the sour, gratuitously cruel Phil into an engaging figure, however, which is why the first act is such a trial; in the somewhat better second act, he is allowed to unleash his natural charm and, for the first time, his fate -- and his chances of a romance with Rita -- suddenly seems to matter.

Matthew Warchus' direction is at its best when staging a frantic joyride through town, providing an overhead view of a cop car chasing a stolen vehicle, and in the many sleight-of-hand moments when Phil, glimpsed elsewhere on stage, magically appears back in bed at the start of another day. The choreography, by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, is intricately worked out to synchronize with the moving scenery; they also provide a lively tap routine for "Philanthropy," backed, amusingly, by an actor in a groundhog outfit pounding some lively beats on a drumkit. Barrett Doss has a nice offhand charm as Rita, although she doesn't have a single number as effective as "Playing Nancy," assigned to a minor character (in a fine performance by Rebecca Faulkenberry), with no relevance to the plot. Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee are pretty funny as a pair of stupefied barflies, who end up in that car chase with Phil. John Sanders is solid as Phil's high school classmate, now an insurance salesman, who cheerily sings, "Death will come to everyone;" he also has one of the better songs, a surprisingly thoughtful ballad titled "Night Will Come." Vishal Vaidya is appealing as Phil's long-suffering cameraman.

Rob Howell's scenery has many clever/astonishing touches, beginning with the show curtain that places multiple videos of Phil (the video design is by Andrzej Goulding) against a dimensional weather map. The many turntables are used cunningly to constantly return Phil to square one, as the bed-and-breakfast where he is staying once again assembles into place. But this is also an incessantly busy design, with practically every square inch covered with little toy townscapes -- including some hanging upside down -- creating a sense of clutter. This is Punxsautawney as seen through Phil's eyes, with the result that one, like him, would sometimes rather look away. Howell's costumes all too frequently consist of polyester snowsuits and geeky uniforms, all featuring colors not found in nature, in a concerted effort to make everyone on stage, except for Phil and maybe Rita, seem like doofuses. With a show in as constant motion as this, it is incumbent on the lighting designer to track the action, reshape the space, and carve out the actors without showing a seam -- a task that Hugh Vanstone performs quite nicely, thank you. Simon Baker's sound design is generally intelligible, barring a few times when Christopher Nightingale's orchestrations drown out the voices. Groundhog Day becomes markedly better as Phil's character improves, and by the time of the climactic duet for Phil and Rita -- a lovely piece titled "Seeing You" -- we start to see how the script's frantic complications might have been grounded in something not unlike real life. Whether or not you are willing to sit through that tinny first act to get to this is your decision; as long as Andy Karl is on stage, you won't be bored -- and, often enough, you'll have a reason to laugh.-- David Barbour


(18 April 2017)

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