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.