As musical theater performers go, you couldn’t ask for a more personable fellow than Andy Karl. His high-energy athleticism kept “Rocky” on its toes. And his comic chops earned him plenty of notice in “On the Twentieth Century.” Now, in “Groundhog Day,” he proves he can carry an entire show on his back — even after injuring himself during a late preview. (He bounded back for opening night.)
Danny Rubin scored a winner with his screenplay for the fondly remembered 1993 movie “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray as Phil Connors, an insufferable TV weatherman who only discovers his humanity after spending a lifetime re-living a single day in his sorry life. In the musical book Rubin adapted from his own screenplay, he softens the character’s repellent nature, while still leaving him room to learn how to be human.
The rest is up to Andy Karl, who faithfully delivers the lines that let us know Phil is a jerk. In “Small Town, USA,” composer-lyricist Tim Minchin lets Phil vent his snobby contempt for country burgs like Punxsutawney, PA, and the dumb “hicks” who live there. As the song goes: “Small towns, tiny minds / Big mouths, small ideas.” But even when he’s sneering at this one-horse town (where the one store on Main Street has an inventory heavy on plaid shirts and fishing tackle), Karl seems constitutionally incapable of showing us his bad side; if, indeed, this affable thesp even has a bad side.
We get that message in the first scene at the TV studio where weatherman Phil Connors (Karl) is taping his last show before heading for the Pennsylvania boondocks to cover the annual appearance of the celebrity groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil. “Will he see his shadow? Won’t he?” Phil asks. “Civilization once again hangs in the balance,” he sarcastically adds.
Phil clearly has no use for the cute seasonal features that his job periodically entails. But there’s not a trace of Murray’s withering scorn in Karl’s cheerfully wry delivery. And while Phil’s experiences in rural America are life-changing, they are still a far cry from the dark night of the soul that his character endures in the movie.
Under Matthew Warchus’s helming, Phil’s adventures in Punxsutawney are like Alice’s adventures in Wonderland — fantastical and fun. Rob Howell’s set designs and Paul Kieve’s illusions rely on amusing optical illusions like miniature car chases and teeny-tiny houses that curl around the proscenium. These funny folk even build a sort-of functional truck on stage.
When Phil and his producer (and love interest) Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss) first arrive in Punxsutawney, they’re greeted by a parade of local characters, including some goofus in a groundhog suit, singing some dumb song about the inevitability of spring, whatever the groundhog predicts. As the show goes on, Tim Minchin’s lyrics turn out to be much cleverer than this introductory number would indicate. Unfortunately, his music lacks a distinctive sound and doesn’t rise above monotony, not even in the song that (so help me!) involves an enema.
Karl’s charismatic perf and Warchus’s inventive staging are in the service of a book by Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay about how Phil is forced to relive Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney until he learns to care about other people. Although the story holds up, it doesn’t entirely make sense here, given Phil’s nice-guy persona and the absence of a redemption number to signify his transformation into an even-nicer guy.