The producers and creators of “Groundhog Day” must be uncomfortably aware by now that, despite the fantasy at the center of their show, every day really is a new day — and not necessarily a happy one.
The musical has hit a few speed bumps since it began previews. The first had to be performed as a concert, essentially, when mechanical trouble struck. At the first press performance the set malfunctioned again. The next night, just three days before opening, Andy Karl, who plays the central role, injured himself during the show, necessitating a canceled performance and an understudy onstage at the last press preview.
It would be nice to report that, despite these travails, the show, with a book by Danny Rubin, who co-wrote the 1993 movie, and a score by Tim Minchin, of “Matilda” renown, deserves the plaudits it has already received in London, including an Olivier Award for best musical and another for Karl as leading actor. But I’m afraid the production, simultaneously frenetic and static, left me just about as glum as its protagonist is at curtain rise. Life would be grim indeed if I had to wake up and face this tedious, charm-free and often tasteless show again day after day.
You probably remember the story. Grumpy TV weatherman Phil, played by Bill Murray in the movie, relives the same day over and over again, requiring him to feign delight at the annual Groundhog Day ritual in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Driven to the edge of madness by the tedium of facing the same dreary irritations over and over, Phil eventually breaks free of his morose cynicism and learns to love life and people again. Cue the uplift.
Although not a smash on its first release, the movie has since become a cult favorite, but its purported brilliance continues to elude me. Like many artifacts of the 1990s — pretty much everything you wore during that benighted period for fashion, for starters — it doesn’t seem to me that it has aged particularly well. (Not helping: Murray’s co-star was Andie MacDowell, a beautiful blight on more than one movie of the time.)
Like the movie, the musical has but two real characters: Phil, here played by Karl, and Phil’s producer Rita, played by Barrett Doss. Surrounding them are a host of inconsequential cartoon figures, mostly caricatures of small-town buffoonery, whose function is primarily to get on Phil’s nerves, and later to serve as the vehicles for his moral salvation.
A musical with just two characters and a story that must necessarily repeat itself is facing trouble, and despite Minchin’s often cleverly turned (if vulgar) lyrics and the Trojan-like work of Karl, “Groundhog Day” never achieves the comic liftoff that made the movie at least mildly diverting. The director, Matthew Warchus, attempts to disguise the inertia at the heart of the tale with an elaborate spinning turntable-within-a-turntable set (by Rob Howell), but this giant-stereo effect only underscores the fact that the musical remains stuck in the same groove for periodic stretches, like a broken record.
Karl, who deserves admiration just for surviving the tempests of another ill-conceived movie-turned-musical, “Rocky,” is a versatile and gifted singing actor. He has a fertile, bounding energy that fits the character’s unbridled angst, and his performance is an impressive display of physical pyrotechnics: He’s a human perpetual motion machine, always popping up onstage seconds after he’s left it. (He’s rarely offstage for the duration of the show.)
But his casting changes the character and our perception of his behavior. Murray’s hangdog unhandsomeness and his obvious middle age made Phil’s jadedness and misanthropy seem sympathetic, something anyone who’s slogged too long through a grinding job can relate to. Karl, with his sexy good looks, chiseled body and obvious youth, comes across as an entitled millennial whining about what most would consider a rather plum job. Through no fault of his own — the problem springs from Rubin’s book, which is more coarse than the screenplay — Karl’s Phil reminded me of those guys at the gym who preen in the mirror and then throw their towels all over the locker room for someone else to pick up. It’s considerably less easy than it was in the movie to have a stake in his moral redemption.
There are other ick factors, too. The comic song that’s meant to be a highlight of the first act, a generic country-flavored tune sung by Phil and two guys he meets in a bar as they knock back booze, ends with all three piling into a truck and careering around town. Nothing like a musical number about drunk driving to give a show a lift, eh? The sequence in which Phil attempts to kill himself several times, of course unsuccessfully, also strikes a sour note when dramatized onstage that it did not in the movie. (Suicide, haha!)
As Phil gradually cottons to his predicament, he sees how he can use it to seduce Rita, who has earlier rebuffed his distasteful pushiness. (“I could pay you,” he deadpans, unfunnily, when she first rejects his invitation to sleep with him.) He orders for himself her favorite drink, and later professes to like French poetry, as she does, details he knows because he’s lived through the same day several times by now. Murray somehow made this seem roguishly appealing, but here it just seems predatory — the dating equivalent of insider trading. (Phil’s sexual aggression is much more amplified here.)
Attempts to humanize some of the small fry on the periphery run into similar problems. Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry), a local young woman whom Phil seduces and discards, also using his knowledge of her history, has a from-nowhere solo at the top of the second act in which she laments her status as a beautiful woman used by men that contains these lyrics: “It’s better to be leered at than not desired at all.” There are other options, Nancy.
And while Doss injects some superficial feistiness into the wan role of Rita, her songs seem to bleed together into one repetitive, mournful ballad in which she complains about her inability to find the right man, as if only by succumbing to the newly morally regenerated Phil can she find happiness.
Minchin is a skillful songwriter, but his score for “Groundhog Day” is mostly flavorless and uninspired, lacking in the spritely comic distinction of his best work on “Matilda.” And the occasional new-to-the-stage additions that Minchin has tacked on do not do much either to amplify the rudimentary emotional questions at the heart of the show — will Phil ever cease being an ass, and will Rita then succumb to his charms? — or to add any comic helium to the proceedings.
Unless, of course, you’ve always wanted to see a Broadway musical in which the leading man receives an enema onstage. Not my idea of fun. █