You might remember a 1993 movie called Groundhog Day, a little gem of a comedy that has only grown in popularity with the passage of time. It starred Bill Murray as a jaded and disgruntled TV weatherman who gets caught in a time loop, in which he relives the same day over and over and over until he finally learns to redeem himself. Think Ebenezer Scrooge transported to an especially quirky episode of The Twilight Zone.
The great strength in Mr. Murray's performance was his ability to inject layers of humanity into the Grinch-y character of Phil, whose job requires him to make an annual trek to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day events, and who finds himself forced to repeat that miserable February 2 for what may very well be all of eternity.
Now, two decades later, we've got Groundhog Day: The Musical, a frenetic work that tries, with mixed success, to capture the elusive blend of darkish humor and redemption that made the movie a lasting pleasure.
Phil is played by Andy Karl, a hard-working charmer of an actor who is coming off a highly touted London production of the show, for which he received the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical. Mr. Karl has been busy on the Broadway scene for nearly two decades, garnering praise for his work in such musicals as The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Rocky, and On the Twentieth Century. In the latter, he played Kristin Chenoweth's boy toy lover and picked up a featured actor award from the Outer Critics Circle.
So big expectations for Mr. Karl and for the show itself. It boasts a book by Danny Rubin, the screenwriter who gave us the original movie script, and it reunites composer/lyricist Tim Minchin with director Matthew Warchus after their joint collaboration on the hit musical Matilda.
Unfortunately, success does not repeat itself with Groundhog Day. Indeed, the best way to sum up the production might be to reference the title of another of Mr. Murray's films: Lost In Translation. Whatever magic everyone was able to pull off with the movie has pretty much vanished with the musical. Rapid-fire action on a very busy multi-turntable set cannot cover up the clumsy crudeness of the enterprise.
To begin with, would someone please buy Mr. Minchin a rhyming dictionary. Because I cannot recall my ear ever being assaulted by a worse set of dissonant near rhymes in well over a half century of theatergoing. Scribbling in the dark, I came up with such gems as: vistas/spinsters; years/beavers; gluten/solution; creases/Jesus. And there were plenty more where these cringe-worthy juvenile efforts came from.
Or maybe I'm missing an intended irony here - a lyricist's way of contributing to the fingernails-on-a-chalkboard portrait of the altogether infantile and sleazy central character we see throughout the entire first act and well into the second.
This is a real problem. The character of Phil is so off-putting for so long, that his turnaround is a matter of too little, too late. Are we supposed to be amused when Phil sings about his "pointless erection" in one song, and masturbation in another, or when he brags about the way he has coerced half the women (and, when he was bored, one man) of Punxsutawney into having sex with him? He mocks and insults everyone he comes into contact with, including a down-and-out town drunk, who doesn't help the situation when, at one point, he sings, "I think I pooped my dungaree." The level of frat boy humor (not to mention the grammatical faux pas) is simply not funny or clever or wry or ironic; it is simply unpleasant.
And while there is a certain degree of well-staged magic involved in Phil's outlandish attempts at breaking the curse through suicide, these efforts are not cartoonish enough to avoid being disturbing.
So, yes, it's nice to see Phil make a turnaround in Act II when he finally figures out that it's not such a bad idea to treat people with decency. In one sense, Phil's last-minute series of good deeds works, because the townspeople have no idea how he has been treating them up to this point. The breakout day is a new day for all of them. The problem is, however, that we in the audience have had to witness all of Phil's idiotic and offensive actions through the many iterations of his repeated day.
There is no denying that Andy Karl gives it his all in a very demanding role, and the rest of the cast gamely bear up under the brunt of being presented as they are seen through Phil's condescending eyes. But, really, I'd suggest that the creative team enter a time loop themselves until they can figure out what went so right with the movie that they have not be able to capture here.
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