Groundhog Day, the very good new musical from composer-lyricist Tim Minchin (Roald Dahl’s Matilda) and Danny Rubin (who co-wrote the original screenplay for the 1993 film), opened Monday at the August Wilson Theatre after a bit of suspense: Star Andy Karl, who just won the Olivier Award for the role created on film by Bill Murray, injured a knee during a critics’ preview last week and was a question mark for opening night. So was the physical production, which was beset with problems throughout previews, causing much headache for director Matthew Warchus, who was bringing the show in from London’s Old Vic, where it too had won an Olivier, as best new musical.
But star and set were in fine form for the opening, and while Groundhog Day may not actually be the best musical, it is, as I said, very good. This will come as a surprise, no doubt, to die-hard fans of the film, which starred Murray as Phil Connors, a self-loving Pittsburgh weatherman assigned for the third year running to hit the road for Punxsutawney, PA to cover the annual rite of P-Phil and his shadow. Accompanied by his producer and cameraman (Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott, in the film), Pittsburgh Phil approaches Punxsutawney Phil and all his human Punxsutawney denizens with loathing and condescension, and basically can’t wait to get out.
Fate has other ideas.
To those die-hard fans, I say: Watch the movie before or after you see the show. It’s an interesting corrective, especially for a work so concerned with memory. People who only remember the film will doubtless find the musical wanting in cynicism and the kind of dry, self-negating humor for which Murray is known. But that’s not, in fact, what Groundhog Day, the Harold Ramis comedy, sold. The Phil Connors of your memory is most likely filtered through the experience of the Bill Murray we know and love from Lost In Translation and St. Vincent and other, later films. In Groundhog Day, however, his Phil was a lot more like, well, like Andy Karl’s Phil: Self-important, a little goofy, irrepressibly on the make, and, most important, available for rehabilitation.
The scheme of Groundhog Day remains unchanged: Phil is awakened at 6 AM in his B&B by the alarm clock; in the movie, we hear Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You, Babe”; here we have inane chatter along the lines of how cold it is and whether P-Phil will predict more winter or an early spring. Phil makes his way through the crowd to the town center, where he meets up with his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss and guess what? herein a star is born) and cameraman, Larry (Vishal Vaidya). They do the gig, the day moves along, including an encounter with an old high school mate who now sells insurance; a pretty, available local woman; a stubbly incoherent bum. When it’s all over, Phil goes to bed, and when the clock-radio goes off again, it’s still Groundhog Day. Phil is stuck in time, and place.
For a while, he uses it to his advantage, as if it were the first part of a Twilight Zone episode — the one in which a guy can stop time with his stopwatch and realizes this is pretty good for robbing banks and frisking pretty dames. Until it all goes wrong. But this isn’t the Twilight Zone. It’s more like a It’s A Wonderful Life. Phil eventually achieves wisdom, and Andy Karl, like Bill Murray, glows and grows in his spiritual realignment under the unwitting tutelage of Rita. Doss is more feisty than MacDowell, and Rubin has given her a tougher sensibility while taking nothing away from Rita’s innate charm and loveliness. Rita is a gem. The story works.
So does the cast. Never have the good citizens of Punxsutawney been so busily occupied as they are on this Groundhog Day. What with the bands marching and the snowballs flying and the police cars chasing and the just-folks swaying, it’s a wonder the stressed machinery of Warchus’ jitterbuggy production doesn’t come grinding to a halt. Oh, wait…
Let’s reset. Yes, there were problems with the set, and an injury occurred. Yes, the show frequently seems on the verge of spinning out of control. But there is neat whimsy — I doubt you’ll soon forget the best car chase I’ve ever seen on stage (Sunset Boulevard, take note) — and genuine feeling, in part because Karl is a deeply appealing guy, as he showed in the ill-fated Rocky Broadway. There are some missteps made in the name of political correctness, I suppose, though even I, unashamedly Mr. P.C., found the song at the top of Act II, sung by Phil’s early one-night-stand, tiresome.
But in all, there’s a tremendous amount of pleasure to be had here. Just check your memory at the door. Because sometimes, you really do need a weatherman to know the way the wind blows.