Stagecraft wizardry is on full display in the whimsical, and wholly satisfying Broadway musical Groundhog Day, based on the movie of the same name. The question going into the theater was how the creative team would negotiate the endless loop of that certain February date being relived over and over. Well, the artisans found a creative and inventive way to bring the story to life that echoes the humor and poignancy of the film.
The story by Danny Rubin, the screenwriter for the movie, centers on Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a self-absorbed Pennsylvania weatherman who, year in and year out, is assigned to cover the irrelevant festivities surrounding whether the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow or not, which folklore states will predict six more weeks of winter or not. On this occasion, a snowstorm traps Connors; his associate producer, Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss); and their cameraman in the small town. When he awakes the following morning in his well-worn bed and breakfast the events of the day, and the townsfolk he interacts with, begin to play out exactly like the previous day. As does the next day. And the next. And the next. The amount of days is never revealed, but suffice it to say there are enough weeks (months?) for Connors to learn to recite French poetry fluently and to learn to play the piano. As time wears on, the shallow forecaster becomes more sanguine, agreeable, and even courteous. His overtly flirtatious attempts to seduce Hanson become less blatant as the two settle into a genuine, caring relationship when suddenly and inexplicitly a new day dawns. A new chapter begins.
The cast is led by Andy Karl as Phil Connors. The actor, a Broadway favorite that has appeared in many productions over the last few years (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rocky, On the 20th Century), finally gets to sink his teeth into a leading role in a hit show. He is a charming, handsome cad that delightfully transforms from a chauvinistic rascal to a thoughtful, considerate gentleman. Karl’s enthusiasm in the role is palatable and infectious. Even a torn ACL before the show’s opening couldn’t stop him from bounding around the stage. Barrett Doss as his love interest, Rita Hanson, brings a professional demeanor to her role. She is independent, yet vulnerable as she tries to make her mark in a sexist world. The chemistry between the two performers is not very strong, which does undercut the musical’s focus on their love interest. Notable members of the supporting cast include John Sanders as the loveable, rather insistent insurance agent Ned Ryerson and Rebecca Faulkenberry as the misunderstood, somewhat gullible town beauty, Nancy.
The score by Tim Minchin, who performed the same duties on the hit musical Matilda a few years back, is not as tuneful or noteworthy. The songs work well within the musical, but only sporadically burst forth into the quirkiness and humor the show calls for.
Director Matthew Warchus, who has helmed such diverse productions as Matilda, God of Carnage and Boeing-Boeing, demonstrates his stagecraft expertise by successfully guiding all the varied components into a cohesive whole. He is able to deftly make the replays of Pux’s everyday world seem fluid without becoming monotonous. He cleverly weaves in some inspired lunacy as with the scenes where Phil Connors learns to play the piano and with his suicidal moments and timed-to-the-minute lifesaving episodes. Together, along with some fancy sleight-of-hand, they all create theatrical magic.
Rob Howell’s Scenic Design is superb. The various sets are imaginative and resourceful and, as in the coupling and uncoupling of the structural sections for the bed and breakfast, a mechanic tour de force. He also shows his artistic inventiveness with the Act I car chase, the highlight of the production. When coupled with Hugh Vanstone’s Lighting Design, the absurd daydream quality of the show becomes magnified.
Groundhog Day, the dazzling absurdity of the film brought winningly to the Broadway musical stage.