Review by Kathleen Campion
A zebra and a unicorn have a great deal in common but they are not the same. It might be tempting to take the extraordinarily rich and fully staged Groundhog Day currently on Broadway, as a mere remake of the 1993 film. It’s not. The film was a terrific zebra; the Broadway musical, is a kind of unicorn.
Phil Connors, a weatherman, is out to cover the annual emergence of the groundhog from its hole. He gets caught in a blizzard that he didn’t predict and finds himself trapped in a time warp. He is doomed to relive the same day over and over again until he gets it right.
Rubin is rich in his collaborators. Tim Minchin, with too many credits to mention, perfects the music and lyrics for Groundhog Day. Minchin’s score, makes a joyful noise, to be sure, but it is not unalloyed hoopla. As one of the shows recurring lines underscores — for all the toe tapping mania — “there’s a sense of sadness” (and, I would argue, of substance). While there is a nod to Leonard Cohen and another to Jerome Kern and, no doubt, many that eluded me, this is an original score that will endure. The sometimes dense lyrics, by turns funny and poignant — in the mode of Sondheim — leave you stretching to sort it all out at times. It’s more than worth the effort.
In each of the solos there is a surprising note and phrase— almost as if the singer finds an added layer of beauty. I’m sure it is “on the page,” but in performance it seems quite organic. Barrett Doss, John Sanders, and Rebecca Faulkenberry each put a subtle sheen on an already glowing phrase or two. Faulkenberry is especially touching singing “Playing Nancy.” It’s one of those songs that you know will be on every aspiring singer’s audition list.
A raft of talented singers and dancers inhabit Gobbler’s Knob, home to the prognosticating groundhog and the setting of our play. Still, in a significant sense, it is a one-man show. Andy Karl (Phil), injured in previews, works the show in a black knee brace. If he is in pain he doesn’t show us. What he does offer up is a breakthrough performance. He is in a world of talent, but you miss him every time he exits. Erasing the estimable Bill Murray in the audience’s memory is no small task — unless you are Andy Karl.
There is a mad series of production gambits that I won’t spoil for you, all playing with size and space and, of course, repetition. There are undersized vans and overlarge rodents. The spinning circles in the stage floor assist the sense of constant activity while clever structures are seamlessly brought, built, then dispatched, all this while more than 20 performers are crashing about. Choreographing this production would be akin to managing O’Hare’s air traffic control tower on a stormy, busy night.
Now, by intermission, the repetition is becoming onerous. Score!
The second act, is of course, about resolution. What’s especially winning here is the craft. All that resolves in act 2 has been carefully foreshadowed in act 1. So, the insipid Ned Ryerson has a broken heart and delivers the show’s message. The guarded Rita disarms. Most significantly, Phil is no longer an asshole.
On the performance side, the craft is stunning. For example, these folks danced their hearts out, in act 1. When we think we’ve seen what they can do, they change it up with an old fashioned time-step number. It was hard to stay seated.
Big musicals must take you over and Groundhog Day does that. As the ushers threw open the 52nd St. doors and we headed for the suddenly fresh air, my companion, a theater-smart guy, pointed out that all those performers, who had just taken their enthusiastic curtain calls, will — Phil Collins-like — do the same show, hit the same marks, reach for the same notes tomorrow and nearly every tomorrow for the foreseeable. (Talk about a play within a play…within a play.)
Unicorns — surprising beasts.
Groundhog Day – Book by Danny Rubin; music and lyrics by Tim Minchin; directed by Matthew Warchus
WITH: Andy Karl (Phil Connors), Barrett Doss (Rita Hanson), Rebecca Faulkenberry (Nancy), John Sanders (Ned Ryerson), Andrew Call (Gus), Raymond J. Lee (Ralph) , Heather Ayers (Mrs. Lancaster) , Kevin Bernard (Hot Dog Vendor), Gerard Canonico (Fred), Rheaume Crenshaw (Doris), Michael Fatica (Chubby Man), Katy Geraghty (Debbie), Camden Gonzales (Dance Captain, Swing), Jordan Grubb (Swing), Taylor Iman Jones (Lady Storm Chaser), Tari Kelly (Piano Teacher), Josh Lamon (Buster), Joseph Medeiros (Deputy), Sean Montgomery (Sheriff), William Parry (Jenson), Jenna Rubaii (Joelle), Vishal Vaidya (Larry), Travis Waldschmidt (Jeff) and Natalie Wisdom (Swing).
Produced for Whistle Pig by Matthew Warcus and Andre Ptaszynski; choreography by Peter Darling; lighting by Hugh Vanstone; sound by Simon Baker; video by Andrzej Goulding. At the August Wilson Theater, 245 W. 52nd St., Manhattan in an open run. Run time is 2 hrs and 30 min. with one intermission.