George Santayana is famous for saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Apparently, those who remember the past are also condemned to repeat it. At least weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is. In the bright, inviting musical Groundhog Day, he’s spending an amusing Feb. 2 — for the audience, if not at first for him — in Punxsutawney, PA. He’s ostensibly there to report on whether Phil (the groundhog) will or won’t see his shadow as a portent of the end or continuation of winter, but something much more personal intervenes.
You’ve got it right if you think this is the stage adaptation of the 1993 Bill Murray flick, directed by Harold Ramis from a screenplay by Danny Rubin, who now wrote the book for the musical. If you know the film, you know depressed and unpleasant Phil (Connors, not the groundhog) is repeatedly forced to relive this Groundhog Day until he learns to become a much more socially acceptable person.
But under director Matthew Warchus’s expert tutelage, Rubin and songwriter Tim Minchin shoot this clever story to the stage as if it belongs there every bit as much as it belonged on the screen. They’ve realized that Phil’s situation is a devastatingly apt metaphor for the way all of us behave too frequently: as if repeating the same foolish, even destructive things day after day will eventually produce a more positive result.
When initially seen, dyspeptic Phil wakes up in his bed-and-breakfast room early enough to arrive just before sunrise at the abode of Phil the groundhog. He was short with proprietor of the B-and-B, Mrs. Lancaster (Heather Ayers), dismissive of the locals he passes on the way to the groundhog’s grounds, and curt with segment producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss) and cameraman Larry (Vishal Vaidya). Then he sarcastically begins to cover the festivities — at which the hapless groundhog does see his shadow, promising six more weeks of winter.
Phil, however, is now consigned to relive what feels like six weeks of the very same day. When his wake-up alarm cannonades him into yet another Feb. 2, he may be repeating the day but he won’t be obligated to repeat it exactly. Luckily for him (and us) he can try different activities and attitudes.
Frustrated at first and even mean, Phil slowly evolves to understand that life isn’t as doggedly downbeat as he’s come to believe. He starts to like the Punxsutawney denizens he’d been mocking — among them, old school chum Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), who’s now a glad-handing insurance salesman.
Most important, he begins having feelings for efficient, attractive, sensitive Rita, although it takes him more than a few repeated days to learn how to express himself properly when he’s with her. Getting to know her, he only slowly realizes that calculated come-ons, while funny, are aren’t at all productive.
Minchin, who wrote the delightfully iconoclastic, Tony-nominated score for Matilda, is delightfully iconoclastic once again. In large measure, Minchin’s style arises from a jovial disregard for meter and rhyme, allowing his melodies to wander wherever the thoughts of the characters venture. Every so often he’ll throw in a rhyme — or an off-rhyme — with a sly so-be-it approach.
It’s necessary to discuss one number especially. It’s built on the song “Nobody Cares” that Phil sings with his drinking buddies, truck drivers Gus (Andrew Call) and Ralph (Raymond J. Lee). Begun at a bar, the routine progresses to Gus and Ralph’s truck where their speeding becomes a police chase.
Warchus, choreographer Peter Darling, sound designer Simon Baker, lighting designer Hugh Vanstone, production prop man Emiliano Pares and who-knows-who-else combine their heady ideas into what is, hands down, the most creative five minutes on Broadway right now. (At the performance I saw, the “Nobody Cares” sequence was stopped for technical repairs. When the number resumed, it resumed from the first measures. In other words, the audience got to enjoy the segment twice. It should only happen to you.)
Enticing as Minchin’s ditties are (especially as conducted by David Holcenberg), one song is missing. It’s the song needed by agitated, beset Phil — the Billy Bigelow “Soliloquy” from Carousel; the Bobby “Being Alive” from Company; the 11 o’clock solo in which the weatherman-who-doesn’t-see-which-way-the-wind-is-blowing sings from deep within himself. Phil does sing a truly touching song called “Seeing You” in the correct slot, but even as he’s building it, he’s joined by Rita and then the company.
Imagine what Karl could do with a tough ballad all his own. It would immeasurably enhance his already sterling performance. He’s alternately nuanced and broad throughout the show as he carries the weight of this tuner lightly. He’s irascible when Phil is irascible; he’s increasingly sympathetic as Phil fights his inexplicable predicament. Karl, whose last appearance on Broadway was an impressive one in Rocky, establishes himself as a complicated, improved Phil — a leading man.
The supporting cast — the spirited Doss chief among them — not only does Karl and Warchus proud but do what musical casts are so regularly asked: look as if they’re having a helluva time making the work seem like play.
Groundhog Day bowed at London’s Old Vic, where Warchus recently succeeded Kevin Spacey as artistic director. It also won the Olivier Award as the best new musical of the London season. Is the Olivier a preview of what’s to come at this year’s Tonys? Nobody can say. What can be said is that it’s like the Groundhog Day on which it takes place: worth experiencing over and over (and over and over) again.