By Lucy Komisar
New York TV weatherman Phil Connors (Andy Karl) is in Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the annual groundhog-comes-out-of-his-burrow-and-sees-or-doesn‘t-see-his-shadow day. If he sees it, there will be six more weeks of winter. (But how do they know?) It‘s a pretty silly made-for-media fake news story. With a made for TV weatherman.
But the book by Danny Rubin, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, is more clever than you would expect. And direction by Matthew Warchus is full of canny surprises. Andy Karl as Phil has great panache and presence and a good singing voice, too.
Phil hates shallow minds. They‘re dumb, superstitious. There‘s nothing more depressing than small town USA. (This goes over big with a New York audience.) But on the other hand, why is this sophisticated and occasionally snide, self-involved, hitting-on-women TV guy covering the story? The plot only touches the edges of the mind-numbing shallowness of television.
The local folks are appealing, and good dancers, including in the “Small Town, USA” number. When the shoot is over, Connors wants to get out, but a snow storm closes the roads. He asks, “Isn‘t there a fast lane for emergencies and celebrities?” (I already don‘t like him.)
No. Repair to a bar. Hit on his attractive associate producer (the point associate is made) Rita (Barrett Doss), whose name he keeps getting wrong and who is uninterested. And so to bed.
When Phil gets up the next morning to meet his crew and drive home, it turns out it‘s the same day. Everything is repeating. And again the next day. So, will he learn anything from the fantasy? Not at first.
He is bored, depressed. He goes to a bar and drinks a bottle, shot glass by shot glass. He asks, “How would you like it if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and there was nothing you could do about it.” It‘s a profound statement about the lives of millions, but he doesn‘t get it.
One of his drinking companions says, “I can barely walk; I‘ll get the truck.” Phil realizes there won’t be consequences. “We could eat/drink anything and not get fat.” Because the next day will start fresh. There‘s a terrific scene of the three drunk guys driving a pickup truck through streets made of lit houses carried sideways by the cast. (Brilliant idea by set designer Rob Howell.) The cops arrest him for drunk driving, but the next morning instead of in a jail cell, he is back in the motel. Now he is loving it.
He gets an idea. There‘s an attractive woman named Nancy who has passed in previous iterations. He goes up to her and asks where she went to high school. Lincoln High School, English teacher Mrs. Walsh. The next new/same day, he approaches her to say, we went to Lincoln, etc. He uses the line to hit on her. His fantasy is to have women with no consequences. Nancy will sing, “In a world run by men, you take what you are given.” Hmm, a little feminism.
He is still trying for Rita. Doss has a good jazzy voice and creates an engaging character. She tells us, “I’d rather be lonely than sit on my fanny waiting for my prince to come. One day, some day he’ll come sweeping in and sweep me off of my feet. And spend the next four decades wanting to cheat on me.” The modern feminist woman!
When Phil comes on to her, she smacks him. He feels trapped, contemplates suicide. But, hey, this is Broadway, he will learn a few things. A few new beginnings follow. The only bad scene is a medical flashback about when Phil has eaten magic mushrooms and thinks he‘s crazy. Dump it!
I hadn‘t seen the film and didn‘t expect to like this play, which seemed very hokey, but I did. It has terrific choreography by Peter Darling and the aforementioned great sets by Rob Howell, especially the cartoonish depictions of lit rows of houses. Director Matthew Warchus makes a play that you think is a made-for-TV sitcom into occasionally fascinating social commentary. The parts are greater than the whole. And again, it features the charismatic Andy Karl. But if you see it, okay to do it just once!
“Groundhog Day.” Book by Danny Rubin, music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, directed by Matthew Warchus, choreographed by Peter Darling. August Wilson Theatre, 245 West 52nd Street, New York City. 877-250-2929. Opened April 17, 2017. 5/14/17.