The cheeky, meta way to review Groundhog Day would be to repeat the same sarcastic, nit-picking paragraph three or four times before softening up and saying aw, heckfire, it’s great! – thus breaking the spell of grouchy repetition. And while there are likeable, inspired elements in this musical adaptation of the great Bill Murray movie, time crawls as you wait for boorish weatherman Phil Connors to surrender to human kindness and true romance.
First, let’s salute the heroic Andy Karl as Connors, trapped in a spiritual-temporal loop, reliving February 2 over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. As he did in Rocky, Karl carries the show with inexhaustible physical and vocal energy, bounding over and around designer Rob Howell’s whirling set pieces without breaking his fine-honed douchebag stride. As everyone knows, such comic gusto takes its toll. Four days before opening night, Karl injured his knee, but was deemed well enough to perform on opening night. May he soon bounce back to 100 percent.
On to the show itself, whose manic, morphing surface partly hides a deeply conflicted interior. To musicalize an essentially cinematic tale (enabled by montages and quick cuts not achievable on stage), director Matthew Warchus and his design team use a range of theatrical tricks: model cars and houses, body doubles, and actors repeating scenes. Unfortunately, the tone throughout is gratingly cartoonish, replacing the dry whimsy of the movie with overwrought clownishness. It’s fine for Phil to be a flamboyant jerk who insults his producer Rita (Barrett Doss, appealingly understated) when not making piggish passes at her. But all the townsfolk are portrayed as simpering idiots (perhaps we’re supposed to see them through Phil’s jaded eyes) and barely evolve. Such broadness worked for Warchus and composer-lyricist Tim Minchin in Matilda, but that was a grotesque Roald Dahl world. Groundhog Day, though silly-sweet, is not.
So when the musical tries to extend any emotional stakes past Phil to supporting characters, it’s a dead end. The second act opens, rather randomly, with “Playing Nancy,” a self-referential tune for the hot blond (Rebecca Faulkenberry) with whom Phil shacks up one night. The number doesn’t work, nor does a head-scratching satirical number in which Phil seeks medical help for reliving the same day over and over. The story lacks focus and drive. We don’t care enough about the crucial, deepening romance between Phil and Rita, there’s no B-plot romantic story to amplify the main one, and the smaller roles are all cardboard fools. One can’t help but wonder if an American creative team might have found more sympathy, subtlety and pathos in the material.
On the song front, Minchin spins the radio dial for a brace of novelty tunes: jazz-inflected pop, hillbilly country, light rock and heart-on-sleeve balladry. He’s a versatile composer, but his lyrics still suffer from the clever-me, overstuffed tendencies that made Matilda amusing but frustrating. Minchin crams the vocal lines, or layers voices too heavily, for sense to shine through (not helped by a near-constant flow of lazy, false rhymes). Danny Rubin’s book, faithful to his 1993 screenplay, has its own problems. It doesn’t know whether Groundhog Day is Phil’s story or the story of a town (a balance achieved in the Atlantic’s The Band’s Visit).
For all the structural problems of the book and score, Karl’s valiant leading performance is indisputably charming and strong – just not powerful enough to fix the benumbing, repetitive world that surrounds him.
David Cote is theater editor and chief drama critic of Time Out New York. He is also a playwright, lyricist and opera librettist.