Over the past 24 years, Groundhog Day has proven itself to have a surprisingly long tail. When the film was released on Feb. 12, 1993, it was regarded as little more than a better-than-average Bill Murray comedy about an arrogant TV weatherman forced by the cosmos to relive the same day over and over…and over again. Since then, however, the film has taken on a strange (and I’d argue well-deserved) second life as a deceptively deep philosophical meditation on the meaning of life — a high-brow statement hidden in a low-brow wrapper. It may be the closest thing the 20th century gave us to A Christmas Carol and the myth of Sisyphus.
Now, the seemingly simple tale has been given yet another wrinkle of interpretation (Singing! Dancing! An Actor in a Giant Marmot Costume!) with the wonderfully inventive Groundhog Day: The Musical, a giddy highlight of the current Broadway season. Before we get into it, though, a word of warning about what isn’t in this Groundhog Day: There’s no “I Got You Babe” from Sonny & Cher driving you mental from the bedside alarm clock; there’s no live rodent on stage (too literal…and too feral apparently); and, of course, there’s no Murray. That last one, I’m guessing, might be a deal-breaker for some — a reason to walk in to the August Wilson Theatre with a skeptic’s cocked eyebrow. But the show’s star, Andy Karl, brings his own brand of smarmy charm to the role of meteorologist Phil Connors and makes it his own before the night is over. Where Murray was rumpled, Karl is pressed and blow-dried. Where Murray was toxically bitter with spiky edges, Karl has more of a slick smugness, his edges smooth and sanded down. Karl may not be as unpredictable as Murray (then again, who is?!), but he conjures his own breed of jerky egomaniac. His energy is oily cool whereas Murray’s was prickly hot. And yet it takes Karl all of five minutes to win you over completely (resist as you might). It’s easy to see how he earned back-to-back Tony nominations for 2014’s Rocky The Musical and 2015’s On the Twentieth Century.
[During the April 14 preview I attended, Karl had the audience eating out of his palm before taking a spill on stage during one dizzying dance number toward the end of the second act. The curtain immediately dropped. The house manager’s call of “Is there a doctor in the house?” came over the PA system. And after a 25-minute pause in the show, Karl returned (with a cane) to finish his performance, albeit more gingerly. It turned out he had tweaked his knee and would miss the following day’s performances — a matinee was canceled, and an understudy went on in his place that night. But when he returned that Friday evening, with a pronounced limp, the audience roared. Karl had proven himself to be a total pro, a play-through-pain gamer. At the end of the show, when taking his bow, he was choking back tears. It was emotional for the crowd as well. A rousing testament to the “live” part of “live theater.”]
If you’ve seen the movie, you’re already familiar with the bare bones of the story: Jaded big-city weather celebrity makes his annual pilgrimage to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to do a remote segment about the furry Punxsutawney Phil’s prognosticative powers. Fueled by a runaway sense of self-importance, Phil looks down on the small-town folks who show up at Gobbler’s Knob every year and belittles his cameraman and new producer, Rita Hanson (You Can’t Take it With You’s Barrett Doss), before waking up the next morning and finding that it’s Feb. 2 again — a cruel case of déjà vu that forces him to spend another 24 hours with the same rubes he can’t stand. It’s the universe’s comeuppance, punishing him with an endless loop of do-overs until he can get life right.
Coming off of a well-received run in London at the Old Vic, Groundhog Day — with a book by the original film’s screenwriter Danny Rubin, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (Matilda the Musical), and direction by Matthew Warchus (also Matilda as well as The Norman Conquests and God of Carnage) — doesn’t mess too much with that set-up. Why would anyone bother? It’s jeweler precise after all. Instead, it gooses up the familiar with dazzling energy, creativity, wit, and heart. Besides Karl, much of the credit goes to the playful stage design and illusions by Rob Howell with Paul Kieve, and the whirling-dervish choreography of Peter Darling with Ellen Kane. At times, Groundhog Day feels more like a plate-spinning magic trick than a Broadway musical. The audience’s first taste of this comes early on as Phil, Rita, and their cameraman head to Punxsutawney in their Channel Five van and a small, tricycle-size remote controlled vehicle appears on stage trundling along like a runaway kid’s toy. At first, it’s laughable, then it becomes insanely clever — like a bunch of teenage merry prankster theater geeks (Rushmore’s Max Fischer Players?) putting on a high school show. Later, they up the ante on that illusion with a three-dimensional car chase that has to be seen to be believed. It’s like Avenue Q meets The Fast and the Furious. During the musical’s big numbers, there are so many moving parts, it’s hard not to wonder why only Karl, and not the entire cast, wound up in the hospital by the end of the night.
Spectacle is fine, but none of it much matters if the basics of the show don’t work. Thankfully, they do. Beautifully. Once you’ve made peace with the Murraylessness of the evening, Groundhog Day manages to hold onto everything that made Harold Ramis’ movie such a classic and adds songs bound to become nearly as memorable. Karl’s first real number, “Small Town, USA”, a swipe at provincial burgs (including, no doubt, many that the tourist-heavy audience hail from) is a bitter little cookie. The country-western tune “Nobody Cares,” performed by Karl along with the town’s resident pair of dim-bulb drunks, Andrew Call’s Gus and Raymond J. Lee’s Ralph, is a honkytonk hoot. And the second act’s “Playing Nancy” sung by Phil’s one-night-stand floozy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) and “Night Will Come,” sung by John Sanders’ Ned Ryerson, the annoyingly pushy insurance salesman who hounds Phil (Bing!), adds some three-hankie sentimentality to a story that previously never had much use for it. And in “One Day,” Barrett Doss’ Rita becomes a more three-dimensional character than Andie MacDowell had to work with in the film.
Theater, of course, is all about repetition. During a show’s run, every performance can take on a same-iness with only minor nightly variations. You could even say that the long run of a show may end up feeling a bit like Groundhog Day to its actors. But thanks to Karl’s undeniable star power, charisma, and quicksilver stage presence (how does he keep managing to make his way back into that bed without the audience seeing?), Groundhog Day: The Musical soars. It’s a show about déjà vu that I suspect will feel totally fresh and new every night. A-