Repetition is an art of infinite variety as it’s practiced by Andy Karl in “Groundhog Day,” the dizzyingly witty new musical from the creators of “Matilda.” Portraying a man doomed to relive a single day over and over and over again in a small town that becomes his custom-fitted purgatory, Mr. Karl is so outrageously inventive in ringing changes on the same old, same old, that you can’t wait for another (almost identical) day to dawn.
That might also be said of the bounteous surrounding production that opened on Monday night at the August Wilson Theater, which features songs by Tim Minchin and is directed by Matthew Warchus (collaborators on Matilda), with a book by Danny Rubin. Based on Harold Ramis’s 1993 movie, Groundhog Day reimagines a much-loved film about instant karma with such fertile and feverish theatrical imagination that you expect to it implode before your eyes. How many blazingly bright ideas can a single musical contain before it sets fire to itself?
You would think that in any adaptation of the movie, the biggest shadow would be cast not by its weather-predicting title critter but by Bill Murray.
Yet while you’re in the presence of Mr. Karl, which, thankfully, is for most of the show, he unconditionally owns the role of Phil Connors. Phil is a burned-out TV weatherman who winds up, through a bolt of metaphysical magic, being forced to relive the same day in the snug little town of Punxsutawney, Pa. (That’s the home of the celebrity groundhog, also named Phil, whose Feb. 2 sighting, or not, of his shadow is said to foretell the duration of the winter.)
In translating this story to the stage, this production plies the bold but risky idea of making entrapment in a hick burg feel like being caught in an all-too-chipper song-and-dance show, the kind of musical that makes people allergic to musicals. The citizens of Punxsutawney are first discovered prancing and crooning in ways you might at first mistake for a parody of the sentimental earnestness of another of this season’s arrivals, Come From Away.
Think of it: Perky, folksy people singing, forever and ever, about the pride of belonging to “a little town with a heart as big as any town” on an endlessly rotating stage. And you thought the characters in Sartre’s No Exit had it bad.
But this show, like the movie that inspired it, is to Groundhog Day what A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life are to Christmas. And during the production’s two and a half very full hours, Phil gradually trades in his cynicism for a grateful acceptance of life’s simpler pleasures. These, of course, include the love of a good woman, who, in this case, is a morally grounded young television producer named Rita Hanson, charmingly embodied and sung by Barrett Doss, who provides ballast without being boring.
It’s Phil’s journey more than his destination that makes Groundhog Day such joy, as Mr. Karl gives many-splendored life to each faltering on the road to self-discovery. Anger, prickliness, outrage, wonder, godlike omnipotence, drunken what-the-hell exhilaration, suicidal angst, Zen-like resignation — Mr. Karl turns these different feelings into a replete gallery of self-portraits, drawn with both comic panache and genuine feeling.
He uses every tool in the musical arsenal, too, often to devastating effect. Even his antic dancing traces a precise evolution of character. (Peter Darling did the choreography, with Ellen Kane.) And his pliable baritone covers the waterfront of emotions, from sardonic, pattering blitheness (“Small Town, USA”) to heavy-metal despair (the paradoxically titled “Hope”).
The insanely talented Mr. Minchin writes songs in many shades, though he’s probably most at home where shadows lurk. As in Matilda, his undulating melodies and whip-smart lyrics tap into the brooding sides of the supporting characters, extending the reach of existential anxiety beyond Phil’s solipsism.
There are unexpectedly poignant solos for supporting characters, like the town beauty (Rebecca Faulkenberry) and a bereaved insurance salesman (John Sanders). And the riotous “Nobody Cares,” in which Phil goes driving drunk with a couple of barflies (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee, both hilarious), becomes an ingeniously staged exercise in hedonistic hopelessness.
Mr. Karl is a very persuasive guide to the show’s mercurial moods. And as he maps out the many phases of Phil, New York audiences have the rare chance to witness the full emergence of a newborn, bona fide musical star. Thanks to his character’s successive reincarnations, Mr. Karl is giving not one but many of the best performances of the season.
Andy Karl triumphs! Exuding charisma and a golden voice, his performance is a suave, comic wonder in Tim Minchin’s deliriously zany, touching show.”
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post
The fabulous book by Danny Rubin is a masterful piece of writing that brilliantly taps the local weatherman, forced to talk every day of clouds, air masses and the only sun we’ve got, as the epitome of existential angst. Andy Karl, the handsome, courageous and hugely talented star, gives a highly effective and intensely skillful lead performance. Barrett Doss quite charmingly plays his producer.
Tim Minchin’s composing talents are the perfect match for this material. He is about the wittiest lyricist on any rialto down under or up above, and his songs in this show are a series of deliciously funny, quirky and waggish little ditties that make you laugh out loud, even as they add more absurdist depth to Rubin’s book. It’s all delicious stuff!
Including spectacular choreography from Peter Darling, Groundhog Day has a lively ensemble, including John Sanders as Ned Ryerson, the slapee of the narrative and funny throughout. Rebecca Faulkenberry, who plays Nancy, gets her own angsty song called ‘Playing Nancy.’”
“The fiendishly crafty creative team has devised a musical that cracks open the source material to amplify its themes, using the story’s collision of misanthropy and sweetness to explore existential questions about lives stuck in neutral and the liberating power to unlock meaningful change by savoring every moment as a fresh experience.
The not-so-secret weapon here is the riotous Andy Karl. He gives a musical-comedy performance of the highest caliber, sliding from self-centered insouciance into surprising open-heartedness, displaying a seemingly inexhaustible range of physical expressiveness along the way.”
Minchin’s raucous and gorgeous songs are rich in the customary caustic wit of his lyric writing.
Warchus’ staging and Howell’s designs are at their most ingenious during ‘Nobody Cares,’ with the pieces of Gus’ pickup truck assembled around the three passengers before the scene switches to an overhead view of miniatures, with cop cars in pursuit. Howell’s design touches are delightful throughout, framing the action above and below with the tiny houses of a storybook hamlet, creating a topsy-turvy, higgledy-piggledy vision; and cleverly using the motif of a weather chart as a decor feature in restaurants, bars, inns and various other locations.
The hardworking ensemble is peppered with bright comic caricatures, along with touching insights into the human condition from Faulkenberry and Sanders. Doss brings an appealing freshness and crisp, warm vocals to her role.
Every time Karl wakes up in the chintzy hell of Howell’s B&B prison, he brings something new. That makes this musical about a guy going nowhere for a long time into a madly entertaining journey of constant change.”
A textured, twisted and ticklish comic musical from composer Tim Minchin and director Matthew Warchus. It’s marvelously good fun and Andy Karl is a magnetic leading man who is now the talk of Broadway.”
“With dazzling energy, creativity, wit, and heart, Groundhog Day manages to hold onto everything that made Harold Ramis’ movie such a classic and adds songs bound to become nearly as memorable.”
Andy Karl, brings his own brand of charm to the role of meteorologist Phil Connors and makes it his own before the night is over. 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. Besides Karl, much of the credit goes to the playful stage design and illusions by Rob Howell with Paul Kieve—including a three-dimensional car chase that has to be seen to be believed; it’s like Avenue Q meets The Fast and the Furious—and the whirling-dervish choreography of Peter Darling with Ellen Kane. It works beautifully.”