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New York City Theater

"Groundhog Day"
August Wilson Theater

What do Dante, Odysseus and Alice in Wonderland have in common with Phil Connors, the hero of “Groundhog Day”? Answer: They all endure journeys filled with danger and threats, gaining knowledge about themselves, before arriving cleansed and enlightened.

That’s the serious part of the funny, insightful musical version of the memorable 1993 film that starred Bill Murray as the caustic Connors. With the Murray role in the hands of Andy Karl, the still-cynical character is imbued with an ingratiating, energetic charisma in one of the season’s best performances. You gotta love the guy.

Assigned to cover the emergence of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who supposedly predicts when spring will arrive, Karl’s Phil Connors at first believes “there’s nothing more depressing than small town U.S.A.”  Thinking the assignment will be one day and out, he’s shocked when he wakes up the next morning and the next and the next, condemned to repeat each day, with variations of his own making, in a purgatorial cycle. For him, every day in Punxsutawney is Feb. 2. The advantage, he says, is “I can do whatever I want.”

He’ll know in advance about his landlady’s bad coffee, about the over-eager insurance salesman he went to high school with, about Nancy, the attractive woman he’ll put the make on, about the groundhog’s prophecy. Through it all, will Connors learn compassion and patience? Will he tone down his cynicism and appreciate not only the locals but his fellow workers? Will he and his producer, Rita Hanson, become romantically involved?

The answers aren‘t hard to figure out, but how Connors gets there is, of course, the show’s arc. With a self-assured book by Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay, and stylish music and lyrics by Tim Minchin (composer-lyricist of “Matilda”), the journey is infectious and touching.

It also rings changes on philosophical questions. What if we could change past and future? “If I had my time again,” goes one of the songs, would I “do it all the same” or “make a coupla fixes”? Another song, “Night Will Come,” admonishes Connors: “On and on you stumble on / towards the fading sun / turn a blind eye, fight or run, rest assured, the night will come.” It’s Samuel Beckett existentialism, gloomy but hopeful.

Director Matthew Warchus keeps complications on track, treating the material with an eye to the characters’ growth and underlying realities. With sly, spiffy choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, the show benefits by a cast that makes even repetition feel spontaneous.

As Rita Hanson, Barrett Doss is more than an attractive foil; her career woman is pragmatic and resourceful. As Nancy, Rebecca Faulkenberry kills with her solo, while Heather Ayers is an endearing Mrs. Lancaster and John Sanders’ Ned Ryerson is the kind of nudnik you want to both run from and embrace.

At one point at the performance caught, Andy Karl propped his leg, injured in an onstage accident and now encased in a large brace, on a stool. “Aren’t you curious?” he asks Barrett Doss. It’s a meta moment, not only acknowledging his injury but connecting the audience to the actor as well as the character. Yes, it’s stepping out of the play but it’s a moment as warm and charming and life-affirming as this musical itself.

--David A. Rosenberg
May 3, 2017

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