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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Theater Review - Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day
Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Book by Danny Rubin
Directed by Matthew Warchus
Where: August Wilson Theatre, New York, NY
When:  Wednesday, July 12, 2pm
One may find it hard to believe that the 1993 Bill Murray comedy classic Groundhog Day would make a good Broadway musical, but that's just what composer/lyricist Tim Minchin (whose Matilda recently graced the Broadway stage) and writer Danny Rubin tried to accomplish with director Matthew Warchus' production of Groundhog Day playing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City.  Despite multiple Tony nominations this year, expectations were a bit muted for me and I'm happy to say I was pleasantly surprised.  While certainly flawed, Groundhog Day provides an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon (at a likely discounted price since the show is simply doing okay attendance-wise) with a great starring performance by Andy Karl who carries the entire show on his shoulders and succeeds at making us give a damn about a rather nasty main protagonist.

Much like the film, the musical follows Pennsylvania weatherman Phil Conners (the aforementioned Tony-nominated Andy Karl) who is forced to begrudgingly head to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover that famous town's Groundhog Day festivities.  Desperate to flee the town immediately following the groundhog's weather prediction, Phil and his producer Rita (Barrett Doss) find themselves stuck due to an unforeseen winter storm closing down all the major highways.  Through some mystical magic, however, Phil finds himself waking up the next day reliving February 2 all over again...and again the next day...and again the next day.  The "why" this is happening makes no difference, but instead the repetition causes Phil to look at his life and determine what kind of man he really wants to be -- the slick, slimy playboy he was before he came to Punxsutawney or a kind, pleasant, and caring guy he finds himself wanting to be whenever he's around Rita.

Mr. Karl is front and center for nearly the entire two-and-a-half hour runtime of Groundhog Day and he's a captivating figure, embodying the manic comedy and brutal desperation facing a man who must relive a single day over and over agin.  Through the songs of Tim Minchin, the smarminess of Phil is perfectly captured by Karl and even though those musical numbers may not be entirely memorable or prove to be of the stand-out nature that you'll be singing them as you live the theater, they still do a great job of adding depth and characterization to the characters voicing them.  There are some failures on the song front -- "Stuck" features an ode to an enema that I never need to hear again (and sounded a bit cacophonous in its layering of counterpoint singers), "Nobody Cares" is a weird country ode to small-town life that while staged hilariously is nothing short of odd, "Playing Nancy" is an absolutely lovely song that opens Act II, but it's about an incredibly minor character -- but I still find Minchin's clever words to be worthy of a listen (much like his work in Matlida).

There's a surprising simplicity to the set and direction of Groundhog Day, but both were glorious -- yes, that's high praise, but worthy.  The main crux of Rob Howell's scenic design is a circular roundtable in the center of the stage with a quartet of circles within it.  The clock-like design mimics the repetitive nature of Phil's days, a clever metaphor via set decoration.  Director Matthew Warchus takes that design and runs with it.  The repetition as Phil tries to unearth what is happening to him could've grown wearisome, but Warchus changes little things here and there to create humor and pathos, and there are truly some genius moments including an amusingly clever suicide sequence in which Phil attempts to kill himself in a variety of ways to no avail.  It was like watching a magic show onstage for five minutes and it was a great feat.

While I've praised Groundhog Day rather effusively, there's still something missing from it as a musical and I think it really comes down to lacking a song or two to truly latch onto as you leave the theater.  Sure, Minchin creates character-driven numbers, but they don't always translate to exciting pieces.  And while I praised the set, it is rather sparse.  With Broadway as expensive as it is, you sometimes find yourself wanting more "showiness" because it's "BROADWAY" even if that's an unfair assessment towards a particular show itself which doesn't necessarily call for grandeur.  All that being said, it's a shame that Groundhog Day hasn't really found an audience because it's an admirable piece -- maybe not a $100 ticket-priced piece, but a worthy piece nevertheless.

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