Theater Review: Why Doesn’t This Groundhog Day Feel New?

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Andy Karl as Phil in Groundhog Day. Photo: Joan Marcus

My idea of purgatory is a show that repeatedly spits terrible rhymes at you. I mean rhymes like erection/reception, ideas/rears, clock/cop, vistas/spinsters, gluten/solution, dresses/precious, collateral/battle, and water/shorter, to name just a few that tortured my ears in songs by Tim Minchin for the new musical Groundhog Day. Most of these are not rhymes at all; they’re assonances, meaning that the words in each pair have similar vowel sounds but their consonants don’t match. Other pairs almost rhyme but backfire at the last second by making one word singular and the other plural: semen/demons, toxins/oxen. Still others sidestep that rather elementary problem by torturing themselves into unidiomatic constructions; at one point Minchin deploys “free” and “tree” as the setup for “I think I pooped my dungaree.” What?

Yes, it’s old-fashioned, and maybe beside the point, to whine about sloppy, thoughtless rhymes. There’s no rule book requiring lyricists to demonstrate Sondheim- or Miranda-style facility. Indeed, accurately matched sounds, falling on the right accents as part of sensible phrases that illuminate ideas, are now so rare that their absence has become the dominant songwriting aesthetic. Nevertheless, bad rhymes, like dropped stitches or cooking without salt, are missed opportunities suggesting a wide array of indiscipline. That’s certainly the case with Minchin’s songs, too many of which are baggy and lazy when the story he’s musicalizing needs to be pointed and ambitious. It’s a failure that helps make Groundhog Day, opening tonight on Broadway after a difficult preview period, a very grating and repetitive experience for more than half of its long running time.

Repetitive, at least, goes with the territory. Like the ingenious 1993 Bill Murray comedy on which it’s closely based, the musical imagines the consequences for a snarky weatherman named Phil Connors of being trapped in a time loop on February 2. Those consequences would be bad enough in his ordinary life, but the loop begins while he is on assignment in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the absurd annual ritual in which the arrival of spring is predicted by a groundhog. (This engenders another bad, if amusing, rhyme: “Is it a squirrel? / Is it a beaver? / Kind of both / but not quite either.”) For reasons never explained in the movie, but feebly suggested onstage, Phil discovers that no matter what he does during the course of the day, he wakes up the next to find it’s still February 2 — and that no one else on Earth has noticed. This eternal blank slate at first makes him anxious, then giddy, then suicidal; with so many days at his disposal, sometimes he experiments with nihilism, sometimes with philanthropy. We see perhaps two dozen of these diurnal variations, or parts of them, though the movie’s co-screenwriter Danny Rubin, who also wrote the musical’s book, has estimated that Connors actually endures something like 10,000 restarts before the loop stops looping. Thank god for dramatic license.

Because even vastly foreshortened, the story’s monotony is a problem far harder to address onstage than on film. (Sondheim himself gave up adapting it, deciding the movie was unimprovable.) The business of Phil’s awakening and dressing each morning, the groundhog ritual with its marching bands and dignitaries, the taping of his remote segment and his encounters with the quaint townspeople: All take loads of stage time, and lots of cumbersome bustle, to establish and then vary. Perhaps that’s why the director Matthew Warchus establishes from the start a pattern of visual tropes — the scenic design is by Rob Howell — that let us see much of the action from shifting perspectives, including a miniaturized police chase performed by puppeteers and viewed as if from above. Naturally, a turntable also gets heavy rotation.

So does the star, Andy Karl, but for whose deft steeplechase of a performance as Phil Groundhog Day would collapse very quickly. It’s hard to imagine another musical leading man who could handle the relentless physical comedy, balance the character’s smarm and charm, then take the portrayal to the darker place where it finally needs to go. (When he hurt his knee on Friday evening, it almost derailed tonight’s opening.) In Act One, while the story is content to amuse itself merely by solving its own problems, light comic chops are all that is required. In Act Two, though, the story deepens as Phil begins to sense (and we with him) the larger philosophical implications of the loop. No longer content to use one day’s existence just to gather information with which to profit the next day — usually by trying to get Rita, his producer, into bed — he now uses the extra time to study piano, learn French, and try to save a homeless man. He’s not just improving himself, he’s creating himself.

It is only then that the brilliance and expansiveness of the central metaphor emerges as the point instead of merely the gimmick. Somewhat astonishingly, though not so much if you liked Minchin’s work on Matilda, the Musical, the previously undifferentiable songs snap into focus too. True, some of them are sung by secondary or even tertiary characters, including the insurance salesman Ned Ryerson and one of Phil’s one-night stands, named Nancy. But in their numbers (“Night Will Come” and “Playing Nancy”) the show begins to express open-heartedly an almost Nietzschean wonder and horror at the thought of the “eternal recurrence” that is our daily life. Luckily, the excellent actors in those roles (John Sanders as Ned, Rebecca Faulkenberry as Nancy) are able to make that switch pay off. Even the rhymes seem less annoying.

Karl, too, is superb with this darker material: You can actually see Phil’s self-concept cracking and reforming under the pressure of the story. In this he is strongly matched by the lovely Barrett Doss as Rita, an unusually well-developed love interest considering the constraints of the concept. But then one of the things that absolutely works in Groundhog Day is the way the supporting characters — who are at first presented as bumpkins and halfwits because that’s how Phil sees them — develop through forced repetition from caricature into a simulacrum of depth. It’s moving in itself and also beyond itself, for is that not how we all become who we are?

Which is not to say that the manic business of the first act is entirely excused by the richer reflectiveness of the second. There were plenty of times throughout when I felt, with Phil, that I’d seen this all before. The adaptation from the film is, in that sense, too faithful; despite the musical’s theatrical cleverness it is often literal and choppy, like word-by-word Google translation. But at least it gets better as it loops along. Perhaps all it needs is a few thousand more iterations.

Groundhog Day is at the August Wilson Theatre.

Theater Review: Why Doesn’t This Groundhog Day Feel Fresh?