There are few more universal yet completely unrealistic human longings than that of the ability to freeze time. But what if your life was inexplicably frozen, and you were forced to repeat a particularly unpleasant day? That’s what happens to Phil Connors (Andy Karl), an emotionally stunted and self-absorbed weatherman who hides behind a sheen of sarcastic retorts. The last place he wants to be is in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a small town known only for its fickle groundhog and namesake day. Phil has been forced to travel by van from his metropolis to cover the shadow-spotting spectacle and makes no effort to hide his contempt.
The original film, Groundhog Day, became a cult classic due to Danny Rubin’s sardonic yet slyly heartfelt script and Bill Murray’s uncanny ability to mine the role for humor while simultaneously exposing the character’s vulnerability. Karl has a difficult task to make the role his own but his charm grows throughout the show. He tore his ACL on the night I attended and when he returned after a short delay, there was an undeniable momentum of support behind him.
The real problem is translating the repetitive mechanism that drives the film. Director Matthew Warchus and scenic designer Rob Howell have come up with a rotating platform that spins each set piece into the foreground when needed, but it often causes the blocking and general motion of the work to feel cluttered.
Rubin’s book delivers the film’s signature sarcasm but stumbles when it tries to make Phil’s producer and love interest, Rita (Barrett Doss), a more feminist character. The problem is despite some rants we never get a sense of who she is outside of her feelings about boys (no scenes that would pass the Bechdel test here). Compounding the problem is an utter lack of chemistry between Doss and Karl that was utterly felt in the original film between Murray and Andie MacDowell.
It’s also odd that composer/lyricist Tim Minchin wrote the show’s strongest female solo song, “Playing Nancy,” for a minor character who has a one-night-stand with Phil. The second act opener captures a raw response to the male gaze that says more than anything Rita utters. Another minor yet beloved character, Phil’s old classmate Ned Ryerson (John Sanders), gets the dark showstopper “Night Will Come,” which masterfully encapsulates a wide breadth of feelings about human mortality—it’s Minchin at his best, using a repetitive refrain “on and on,” to captures our relationship to time better than anything in the show.
Unfortunately, Minchin’s talent often feels caged-in, resulting in bland songs like the opener, “There Will Be Sun,” which does nothing to bring us into the world of the show. There are a handful of superb songs, including the joyously reckless “Nobody Cares,” which captures Phil’s realization of the hedonistic upside of there being no tomorrow: no consequences, no punishments, and a clean slate each day.
Despite all its missteps and inadequacies Groundhog Day, is easy to watch with occasional flourishes of brilliance that remind us how much better the show could be.