Days Before Opening, Groundhog Day Tries Out a New Phil Connors

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Photo: Joan Marcus

Minutes before the curtain rose on Saturday night’s performance of Broadway’s Groundhog Day, Tim Minchin, who wrote the music and lyrics for the show, came onstage to address the elephant-sized rodent in the room: The show’s star, Andy Karl, injured himself during Friday night’s performance. In the wake of Karl’s injury, producers canceled the Saturday matinee, and Karl’s understudy, Andrew Call, prepped for his first performance as weatherman Phil Connors that night. “I hope this is a night you’ll be able to say that, I was there when …” Minchin told the crowd, “hopefully in a good way.”

Minchin said he and the crew believe that Karl will be “fine and back on his feet” in the future. In many ways, the star, who led Groundhog Day to Olivier awards for Best Actor in a Musical and Best New Musical in its London run, seems indispensable to the show. His injury occurred in the midst of press previews, and days before its scheduled opening on Monday. “This is the sort of thing you dare not even fear,” Minchin explained. “Forty-eight hours out from our opening night, this is our final preview.” The question in the August Wilson Theatre: Could Groundhog Day work with a different Phil Connors?

The audience, initially nervous and confused, greeted Call with enthusiasm after Minchin’s pep talk, and the energy carried throughout performance. In keeping with the film it’s based on, the musical has Phil living the same day on repeat, which means that he’s onstage for nearly the full running time, repeating the same actions with minor variation. Still finding his bearings in the role, Call didn’t have Karl’s Rolex-like ability to make the show’s machinery move as if without a single tick. Shying away from Karl’s athleticism, Call played the character as more of a detached, sardonic cad than a ham, and powered through the inevitable flubs, mostly limited to a few dropped lines and wardrobe issues (mistied ties and unbuttoned shirts; Phil dresses onstage a lot), with dry determination. By act II, he had relaxed further, earning cheers during “Hope,” a song where Phil dies and suddenly reappears in bed several times over.

After some bad luck with the set of turntables that form the stage in earlier previews, Groundhog Day’s technical elements went off without a hitch, from the aforementioned death montage to a chase scene with miniature cars. The rest of the cast, including Jordan Grubb, who made his Broadway debut filling Call’s usual role as Gus, a town drunk, kept the energy high. Barrett Doss, who plays Phil’s love interest, Rita, and Call spent much of the show calibrating their chemistry, though by the final sequence they’d managed to sell the love story to the eager audience.

Once the lights came down, there was an immediate standing ovation, while a visibly exhausted Call hugged it out with Doss and the rest of the cast. There’s still much to be done if Groundhog Day does intend on opening in this form on Monday night, but to be fair, it’s a whole show about how much you can accomplish in twenty-four hours.

An Understudy Plays the Lead Role in Groundhog Day