Theater archives

The Groundhog Variations: The Heroic Andy Karl Rescues Broadway’s Latest Crack at Screen-to-Stage Bigness


It takes the warping of time and space to stop white dudes in media from sexually harassing women. At least, that’s how it goes in Groundhog Day, the dutifully clamorous — and often joyously funny — Broadway embiggening of a film whose premise suggests something of the experience of watching this adaptation. As prickish weatherman Phil (Andy Karl) gets caught in a timeloop, grinding through the same wintry day again and again, how can audiences not think of how we’re also trapped ourselves, just within the ritualized re-mounting of familiar media properties? Phil is doomed to repetition until he at last learns to stop pawing and leering at Rita (Barrett Doss), which seems to take him only a thousand or so February 2nds. Lucky him. We’re stuck reliving the same stories not until we’ve become better people but until they’ve had all the profit wrung from them.

Like Phil, though, Groundhog Day makes the best of it. Karl’s weatherbro is a marvel of razzle-dazzle pissiness, a preening ass-hound who first goes mad in his existential predicament and then seizes its every opportunity for delirious bad behavior. Karl, a superb physical comedian, performs the role as if he’s never seen Bill Murray in the 1993 original. Rather than a depressive crank, his Phil is a type-A business-school hunk who somehow skipped day-trading to do TV forecasts. His lament upon waking up for the first time in Punxsutawney, Pa., rhymes “pointless erection” with “no reception.” Ripped and suited, his jaw as rugged as his haircut is precise, he looks how Paul Ryan thinks he looks.

You might understandably be thinking that nobody needs to see another story about a guy like this discovering the redemptive power of love — or that small-town folks have bigger hearts than the rest of us. (Phil’s characterization of his assignment covering the annual emergence of the world’s most famous groundhog: “Talking to hicks about magical beavers.”) But the show’s at its best when this guy’s suffering. As Phil dashes in horror through the second and third iterations of his day, Karl uncorks a torrent of peerless, worth-the-ticket-price reactions, riffing at length on Phil’s feelings of stunned disgust with all the vigorous invention of Sonny Rollins running through a calypso. Above all else, musicals like this promise two things: pleasurable familiarity and the chance to see the best in the world do whatever they do. Even with his leg in a brace following an injury sustained during previews, Karl holds up his end of the bargain.

That said, the show still suffers from that Broadway hugeness, that sense you’re watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade somehow shrunk to the size of the August Wilson stage. The extended opening number, a meet-the-townsfolk pastiche too arch to connect, is relentlessly busy, stuck in a go-nowhere parodic mode. The citizens of Punxsutawney outdo The Music Man‘s Iowans in chipper annoyance by an order of magnitude; in color-coordinated sweaters and tracksuits they sing cloyingly of bright eyes and laughter, like they’re in a commercial for the Target in Dr. Seuss’s Whoville. Phil salts all this sugar with contrapuntal put-downs as the Whos carry on, but too much sugar is too much sugar, and the story’s structure demands we revisit “Small Town, U.S.A.” in increasingly antic, abbreviated versions.

The show gets darker and more idiosyncratic as it goes, the ensemble faring better in the moments that don’t risk inducing a sugar-rush freeze headache. A pair of Real America barflies (Andrew Call and Raymond J. Lee) treat us to a too-short patter scene, vaudeville by way of Hee Haw, and then a rousing, solipsistic country number whose message has been exposed as a lie by recent events: “Nobody cares what I do,” they insist, though in real life reporters and playwrights are lined up to set down the concerns of such forgotten men. Taking the message (and Tim Minchin’s crackerjack melody) to heart, Phil goads them into drunken joyriding and an inevitable police chase, dramatized via comically toylike models.

Matthew Warchus’s staging takes witty advantage of revolving platforms, which allow Phil to seem forever in motion without actually getting anyplace. It also serves the illusion of a pickup truck spinning out of control and, in a rare moment of peaceful beauty, a slo-mo carnival ride. The production is consistently inventive in its craft, especially when, in crisply syncopated montage, it illustrates Phil’s cyclical predicament: He’ll kill himself stage right and then immediately wake up in his b&b bedroom stage center, only to do it all again.

Doing it all over again is the theme — and the hope — of this show that’s built to please ’em for years. The team that has crafted it (Danny Rubin, co-screenwriter of the movie, handled the book; Minchin the music and lyrics) honors what worked in Harold Ramis’s original film while picking at its retrograde aspects. Comedies like Ghostbusters (1984) sicced Murray’s character on women whom he annoyed, harassed, and then inexplicably won over; by Scrooged (1988) and Groundhog Day, the screenwriters had accepted that the only way to justify the smarmy hero’s romantic triumphs was to first redeem him. Thus was born the template of studio movie comedies ever since: Funny asshole violates all of society’s rules for 75 minutes, and then, thanks to the love of a long-suffering woman, becomes in the final 15 someone so nice we probably wouldn’t want to watch a comedy about him.

The woman in these stories is a catalyst but still mostly a prize. Doss exhibits a rare-for-Broadway offhandedness in her performance as Phil’s casually hoodied love interest, and she charms while talk-singing much recitative meant to establish her Rita as complex. But songs about not being hung up on waiting for Prince Charming are just a tick more interesting than songs about longing for him. More fascinating is Rita’s response to Phil’s most aggressive come-ons. She clocks him, he deserves it, and Warchus has such control over the tone that, at a Saturday performance in late April, the rollicking crowd went dead silent.

This production is never more at war with its source material than at the start of the second act, when Rebecca Faulkenberry sings “Playing Nancy,” a piercing, honest ballad about her character’s function in the show: “the perky-breasted giggly one-night stand” who is “just a detour on the journey of some man.” Both Doss and Faulkenberry deserve their ovations — and roles that don’t demand meta-theatrical justification.

Groundhog Day

August Wilson Theatre

245 West 52nd Street