The Shadow of Winter: Review of Groundhog Day: The Musical

Act II of “Groundhog Day: The Musical,” opens on a surprisingly mournful note, when a side character named Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry), who barely had any lines in Act I, steps downstage center and sings the ballad “Playing Nancy”, where she shares her sadness about the role life has assigned to her: She is a perpetual one-night stand, a “detour on the journey of some man.” Until this point in the production, Nancy has been seen only in passing as a sexy snow-bunny leered at and seduced by trapped-in-time weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl). She is what she appears to be: an easy party-girl. But suddenly, with no preamble, the stage is hers. We learn what life is like for her, her awareness of how she is perceived, her participation in that perception, her hopes that someday she can stop “playing Nancy.” “Playing Nancy” is just one of many moments in this innovative production where the story shifts and allows us to do what the original film did: slow time down enough to consider the implications.

This radical choice is a perfect example of what the Broadway adaptation, directed by Matthew Warchus, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (collaborators on “Matilda”), and book by Danny Rubin (who wrote the screenplay for the iconic 1993 film), has done extraordinarily well: dig into what is commonly called “the human condition,” not just for the selfish Phil Connors, but for everyone. As Phil becomes more engaged with life, the people around him – people whom he sneered and leered at from the get-go – start to become three-dimensional.

“Groundhog Day” is the story of a misanthropic weatherman who gets stuck in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 2nd, while covering the annual Groundhog Day celebration. Stranded in the town by a blizzard, he wakes up the following morning, eager to flee, only to find that it is yet again February 2nd. He is caught in a time loop, doomed to live the same day over and over again.

The original film, directed by Harold Ramis, starred Bill Murray at his deadpan dry best. An unlikely classic, perhaps (a woman sitting in front of me said to her friend as they took their seats, “You must be the only person in this whole joint who’s never seen the movie.”) but classic films are not created by marketing departments gunning for Oscar gold. There are prestige films that don’t begin to approach the profundity of “Groundhog Day’s” philosophical exploration.

As imagined by Warchus and Minchin, “Groundhog Day” uses the typical format of musicals to illuminate the theme of the story (as opposed to just attaching songs at appropriate points). A musical has artifice built in. Entire town squares burst into song, and every citizen suddenly knows how to tap dance or do the cakewalk. We accept these devices if the story works, if the music is good. Here, songs repeat. Endlessly. The big opening number, where the perpetually happy residents of Punxsatawney take to the streets with balloons and marching bands to celebrate Groundhog Day, keeps repeating as the day repeats, and with each repetition, each time that marching band swarms the stage, the situation seems more and more lunatic. The music tilts into mania and nightmare, minor chords and discordance proliferating, and the jubilant bouncy choreography (by Peter Darling, co-choreographed with Ellen Kane) starts to seem frankly psychotic the third or fourth time you see it, as Phil realizes with horror that this moment – this day – this damned SONG – will be his life now. Forever.

Andy Karl (“Rocky,” “On the Twentieth Century”) has not tried to step into Murray’s shoes and give the audience what they already know via imitation. Instead, with an infectious and dazzling sense of freedom (physically, emotionally, vocally) he obliterates the memory of Bill Murray, giving a performance that shows nothing less than a man’s total transformation, from cranky contemptuous observer to emotionally engaged humanist-romantic. It’s hard to make something look this easy. As talented as Karl clearly is, it is still a surprise at just how deep this performance goes. His baritone voice can do anything, including a Robert-Plant-esque scream at the end of the Act II ballad “Hope”.

A charming Barrett Doss plays Rita, the sometimes-vulnerable and sometimes-tough producer assigned to the “Groundhog Day” spot, exasperated by Phil’s superior attitude towards the people of Punxsatawney, towards her, towards life in general. As Phil’s attraction to her grows, he tries to become a man worthy of her (there’s one hilarious sequence reminiscent of David Ives’ one-act “The Sure Thing,” when one scene is played multiple times in succession as Phil course-corrects his earlier snafus.) Rita’s character is deepened by her introspective diary-entry song (“February 2nd”) as well as her Act II grunge-rock rager, “If I had My Time Again.”

The cast is rounded out with smaller characters, each of whom have their moment in the sun: Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), the overly happy insurance salesman who accosts Phil every day with grating joy, before he – like Nancy before him – shows just what his outward pose is covering up in “Night Will Come,” Gus and Ralph (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee), two sad-sack barflies who sing a sad-sack country & western tune (“Nobody Cares”) before going on a joyride with Phil (a sequence that has to be seen to be believed). Even poor Larry the beleaguered TV cameraman (Vishal Vaidya) has a small character arc with a sensitive payoff.

An interviewer once asked Tennessee Williams, “What’s your definition of happiness?” Williams replied, “Insensitivity, I guess.” Minchin’s score understands this difficult sentiment, tapping into the darkness beneath the wintry sunshine of Groundhog Day, the repeating songs underlining the nagging question: “Is this all there is to life? Marching bands and joyful choruses?” Happiness is downright alienating to those who don’t feel it. There’s a dark fatalism here that the production does not shy away from. Phil’s suicide-attempt sequence (featuring a number of visual illusions where there appears to be no less than 4 or 5 Phils onstage at any given time), is a red-lit nightmare from hell, and the cut-outs of Punxsatawney village are placed all cockeyed on the sidelines, making it look like Whoville tilting off into an abyss.

We all play roles in life, many of them not chosen but imposed. Phil sees other people as though they are two-dimensional cut-outs. He writes them off at a glance. We all do this. “Groundhog Day: The Musical,” in ways thoughtful and funny and deep, forces the question: Can we stop writing other people off as this or that “type”? Can we stop thinking about ourselves so much? Can we slow down time just enough to really see each other?

This entry was posted in Theatre. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Shadow of Winter: Review of Groundhog Day: The Musical

  1. Stevie says:

    Sounds phenomenal! I’ve been a fan of Andy Karl’s since his appearance as the UPS guy in the Legally Blonde version headed by Laura Bell Bundy (on YouTube). Happy for him to be involved in such a well-crafted, insightful show! It surely could’ve been a tune-happy but shallow version of the movie – kudos to the creators for getting it right! xxx

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – it really is so good! If the national touring company eventually comes your way, you should definitely check it out.

      I love the music for Matilda – a show I haven’t seen but I own the cast recording. There’s a darkness to the composers’ style, a cynicism that isn’t completely corrupt – just an acknowledgement of the potential ugliness in human beings – and that’s such a huge part of Groundhog Day. And since the songs in the show repeat themselves 4, 5, 6 times … they better be at least somewhat good.

      I will definitely check out that Youtube clip!

      Stevie – this guy is a phenom. I’m not sure if you heard about his injury just before the previews – He was still wearing the knee brace when I saw it. He went on anyway – and they had to re-block many of his sequences so he could do them. A true pro. Sexy as hell too. Like Mitchell says: “A straight leading man on Broadway? He’s a unicorn.”

      // It surely could’ve been a tune-happy but shallow version of the movie //


      Despite my love of the composer – I went in completely skeptical. Like: Oh come on, I am so sick of this lazy approach to Broadway shows. Make up new stories!!

      But this wasn’t a safe or “obedient” adaptation. In many ways, it went deeper (like that “Playing Nancy” number). That element is in the movie, of course, but a musical can take the time to have people step forward and sing their soliloquies.

      It really worked.

      Frankly, I was a mess. It made me weep multiple times AND it made me think about the philosophy in this particular story, which has so much relevance to how we live our lives.

      I loved it! Clearly!!

      • Stevie says:

        I guess Hugh Jackman is a unicorn, too! :)

        Always thrilling to see someone become a star, an overnight sensation, especially when they’ve been working at it for 20 years. Karl’s wife is very talented, too – she plays the manicurist in the same production of Legally Blonde. I think her name is Ofey or something like that.

        The musical form has that power to create messes out of us – when done right. I’m still marveling at Imelda Staunton’s Madame Rose. It was revelatory. I sobbed. The post-Rose’s Turn scene with Gypsy when Rose admits she did it for the attention, and Gypsy says, “Like I tried to get your attention, Mama” – – – Staunton has a breakdown (Alex’s use of the word shatter is truly accurate here) and it’s so effective because Staunton has taken us through her performance to that point. Rose isn’t the most likable character in the world; still, you ACHE for her.

        • Stevie says:

          Karl’s whole performance in Legally Blonde is built upon how his ass looks in the UPS brown shorts uniform. But then he leaps into an incongruous riverdance sequence and nails it. He looks like a suddenly-graceful moose.

          • sheila says:

            Karl has an unbeLIEVable body. Not surprised he played Rocky!! Now I’m sorry I missed it. My love of the film made me stay away – very dumb, in retrospect.

            I need to see him incongrously riverdance. Does footage of this exist?

        • sheila says:

          Definitely Hugh Jackman!

          and wow, Stevie, wow, I have not seen the Imelda Staunton Madame Rose. I got goosebumps just listening to your description.

          • Stevie says:

            Honestly I was floored. I mean, typically the number is performed to evoke the reaction, “Wow, she’s a great belter!” Triumphant, followed by the mutual acknowledgement between mother and daughter. But this was a brilliant actor’s interpretation. (The actor playing Gypsy is blah, in fact most of the other performers are pedestrian except for a hilarious Mazeppa whose exhaustion makes her bumps and grinds matter-of-fact, and Dainty June, who squeaks like a kewpie doll, but Staunton doesn’t need there to be a connection with Gypsy or anyone else. She’s ON IT!)

            It’s available on Amazon – I wonder if there’s a way for you to see it on my account? INHO it’s the definitive performance of Madame Rose. But I don’t get around much!

            The performance reminds me of what you said about Natasha Richardson in Cabaret, making the decision to get an abortion WHILE she’s performing. That’s the level of complexity and revelation Staunton brings. You gotta see it!

          • sheila says:

            I have an Amazon Prime account – I will definitely check it out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.