Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

August Wilson Theatre, NYC, May 5, 2017

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes

Photos: Joan Marcus

Andy Karl

You can’t complain that Groundhog Day is repetitive, although that’s exactly what it is. As everyone knows, including fans of the 1993 film, when Punxsutawney Phil casts his shadow on February 2, it means six more weeks of winter and, for some reason, Phil Connors, an obnoxious TV weatherman with a sleazy edge of charm, has to cope with it. At the August Wilson Theatre, Connors gets trapped in a time warp, waking up to repeat the same day in exactly the same way. A two-hour-and 45-minute musical of repetition, however, while often entertaining, can turn tiresome.

There’s no doubt that Groundhog Day belongs to tenacious Andy Karl, who plays the cynical weatherman with dash and humor. Karl, who had an on-stage accident just before the opening and, with a banged-up knee, is facing the challenges of leading a musical that’s constantly on the move. He is always on stage, tireless and committed, on set designer Rob Howell’s five busy turntables and Peter Darling’s snappy choreography with Ellen Kane.  

As a weatherman, Connors’ job at the TV station includes covering the annual tradition of the Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania groundhog who emerges to see, or not see, his shadow every February 2. Bored with the assignment, but basking in his recognition as a television weatherman, Connors agrees to drive there once again with his cameraman and his colleague Rita (Barrett Doss). But this year something is different. They get to Punxsutawney, do the job and get ready to come home, but are suddenly stopped by “the blizzard thing,” closing the roads. They are snowed in.

Andy Karl & Barrett Doss

Strangely, when Connors wakes up the following morning, it is still February 2. Puzzled, he gets up, drinks coffee, and runs into the same small town folks he treats with dismissive superciliousness every year. Same thing the following day: same small talk and same selfies. And the day after that. Worse, Connors is alone in realizing that everyone is repeating Groundhog Day. His frustration slants toward manic repetitious antics. 

With a book by Danny Rubin, director Matthew Warchus (Matilda) keeps the irreverent cynicism contrasting sharply with the town’s just-folks values. Joining Warchus from Matilda, Tim Minchin adds a tuneful, if not memorable, score with sprightly lyrics, all of which were enough to earn the show, and Karl, Olivier Awards in London. Many of the songs are catchy, especially in Act I with variations on just a few themes. With “Small Town, USA,” the townspeople sing “And there is no town greater than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day.” Countering their sunny spirit, Phil vows, “There’s nothing more depressing than small town USA/And there is no town smaller than Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day/Just kill me now.” The songs, however, do not move the story forward as much as embellish the moment or the character. Two bizarre songs are “Stuck,” a wacko nightmare of enemas and healers, and “Hope,” as Phil is about to give up. (Think pills and a toaster in the bathtub.)

Andy Karl (C) & Cast

The downside is the lopsided timing. Act I tends to zoom ahead in full speed and Act II slows to a slog as we wait for Connors to finally recognize the goodwill of the folks around him, and a possible romance with Rita. Doss (You Can’t Take It with You) does a fine job as plucky Rita, whose bright optimism does eventually warm Connors’ cold heart. The company is ebullient, but more attention could be paid with secondary characters.

The play, however, belongs to Andy Karl, a charismatic singer/dancer/actor of the top level. Nominated for Tony Awards as the star in Broadway’s Rocky and later On the Twentieth Century, he is a bright star on the Broadway stage who will shine, show after show after show.

Elizabeth Ahlfors

Born and raised in New York, Elizabeth graduated from NYU with a degree in Journalism. She has lived in various cities and countries and now is back in NYC. She has written magazine articles and published three books: A Housewife’s Guide to Women’s Liberation, Twelve American Women, and Heroines of ’76 (for children). A great love was always music and theater—in the audience, not performing. A Philadelphia correspondent for and InTheatre Magazine, she has reviewed theater and cabaret for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia City News. She writes for Cabaret Scenes and other cabaret/theater sites. She is a judge for Nightlife Awards and a voting member of Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.