Review: Groundhog Day finds its own way to dazzle as a Broadway musical

You have opinions about Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray as weatherman Phil Connors, stuck in Punxsutawney, Penn, reliving the same day until he gets it right. You definitely have such affinity for it (and of Stephen Tobolowsky’s performance in the film) that multiple Broadway audiences have burst into applause just at the sight of Ned Ryerson’s character onstage.

You’ve made Groundhog Day an all-time comedy classic onscreen.

For me, and for many others, what makes it such a lovable, teachable ode is how Phil’s parable demonstrates how powerfully we transform when we abandon our instincts for self-will. How much a life helping others winds up helping us even more than we might have imagined. If you could (or were forced to) live the same 24 hours, over and over, would you take advantage of it for your own selfish gains, or would you learn to see the needs of those around you and fulfill them as best as you could? If so, how long would it take you to learn that lesson?

Danny Rubin adapted his own original screenplay for Groundhog Day, working with music and lyrics from Tim Minchin and direction from Matthew Warchus (who had worked with Minchin previously adapting Matilda from the screen to Broadway musical).

Everything from pre-show through intermission seems designed to put you at ease, to make you comfortable or otherwise re-acclimate you to the premise of Groundhog Day, earning your love through both a loyalty to the framework as well as a dazzling display of theatrics. Even before the curtain rises, audiences see multiple screens and TV reports featuring the stage version of Phil Connors, played by Andy Karl.

It’s a technical marvel how they then figure out how to stage all of Punxsutawney and the town’s signature holiday routine, rotating and revolving around and in front of the audience, from Connors and his producer Rita Hanson (played with charismatic aplomb by Barrett Doss) as they find themselves snowed in, to Connors waking up again in his bed-and-breakfast to meet the locals once more. It’s also quite the acting and acrobatic feat. Karl, who had earned a Tony nomination previously for playing Rocky Balboa in Broadway’s attempt to adapt Rocky, not only has to bob and weave his way physically around the moving parts, but also has to remember which version of Groundhog Day he’s in as the lines and interactions vary slightly with each incarnation. Karl suffered an injury in one of the final preview performances before Monday’s official opening night (tearing an ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament), but managed to keep going. Just as his character does.

There’s a new scene and musical number in which Connors seeks out alternative medicine healers to get him unstuck, followed by a bigger crowd-pleasing re-imagination of a police chase toward the end of Act One just Connors starts to drunkenly fumble toward his bottom, bemoaning that “Nobody Cares,” and wondering what’s the point of reliving this day one more time.

But the second act raises the stakes theatrically, musically and emotionally, really selling what makes the musical special and stand on its own, separately from the movie.

“Playing Nancy” puts Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) front and center, singing to us how she knows exactly what part she’s playing in this story. Some old-school magic tricks and illusions help brace Connors through what in any other production be a death spiral of suicide attempts, all for naught as he manages to wake up each time back in his bed. By the end, by the climactic staging of “Seeing You,” this production has won your heart, just as the film once had.

Groundhog Day is playing at the August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., New York, NY.

Here’s a medley of music from “Groundhog Day,” sung by the cast.

Fans of Tim Minchin will easily recognize his wit, as well as his mashup of idealism and cynicism, in many of the songs. Here’s a bit from Minchin explaining his role in adapting Groundhog Day for Broadway.

And here’s the official version of “Seeing You.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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