Groundhog Day – August Wilson Theatre – September 2017

Shout out to my friend Mary for holding the Playbill so I could get a decent shot. I’m digging the nail polish.
This is going to be fast(ish) and ugly because I want to get my thoughts down while they’re fresh but I have a bunch of stuff to do before the next bit of entertainment. So please forgive the inelegance. 
I’m in New York for another theater trip. Well it didn’t start that way – the original purpose of the trip was to see John Owen-Jones perform at Feinstein’s/54 Below (which hasn’t happened yet but I might actually write about that after the fact as well). But since we went from one night to see JOJ to three days and two nights to hang in NYC, we turned it into a bit of a theater trip. First up: After a 6am train and a ridiculously expensive trip to a deli, we found ourselves at the August Wilson Theatre for the matinee of Groundhog Day. I’m a moderate fan of the film Groundhog Day and the only two things I knew about the musical were that the lead, Andy Karl, tore his ACL during previews and bounced back two days later to take the stage for opening night and when Bill Murray finally saw this show this summer he was reported to have been sobbing by the end. Impressive but not really anything that would get me to New York.

In all honesty, I only chose it because I knew we’d be in the city on a Wednesday afternoon and I was looking for a matinee to attend. So after looking over my options, I chose Groundhog Day. I didn’t know until today that my friend had never seen the film and only had a passing idea what it was about. So now we were getting somewhere – it’s always fun to go to a show with someone who is pretty much going in blind. I’m in…let’s go. The theater holds 1,222 people (as a comparison for my Boston friends, the Boston Opera House holds 2,677 and the Wang’s capacity is 3,500). So immediately there’s a small town feel (as small town as Broadway can be). While we waited for the show to begin, we’re entertained by the curtain, decorated with well over a dozen screens, introducing us to weatherman Phil Connors via various, soundless weather reports. It’s an intriguing introduction that telegraphs the wonderful cleverness we’re about to witness. The entire ensemble is first rate (Duh, I know, they’re on Broadway.) All have helped create likable characters and some have talents that initially seem hidden (there isn’t one of them that doesn’t have the kick-assiest of dance moves) – which brings me to the only detriment to this show for me: Andy Karl is so ridiculously talented that I almost never took my eyes off of him so I didn’t get to genuinely enjoy the rest of the cast as much as I’d have liked. Every production should have such an issue. Before I go on about Andy Karl…let me just say Barrett Doss as Rita is so cute and funny and likable that when she begins to sing she blows you away with her emotional, soul-baring performance. She is incredible. But, again, holy cow does Andy Karl shine.

I’m not re-inventing the wheel when I write about the talent that oozes out of every one of Karl’s pores. The man has an Olivier Award for this show as well as three Tony nominations (for Groundhog Day, On the Twentieth Century, and Rocky). I realize I didn’t discover him but holy hell am I happy I got to see him before the show ends its run on September 17th. As we left the show my friend turned to me and stated simply: “You realize I’m in love with him, right?” Right. Who isn’t? 

Watching Andy Karl on stage is truly watching a master. The man glides across the stage, even when he’s just walking. Every facial twitch, every eye roll, every mouthed “What the fuck” had me enthralled. If you weren’t watching him every moment he was on the stage, you were missing out. He never stopped. He was engaged with every character and every part of the stage. During the first half of the first act, one of his most impressive feats was, to my eye, how perfectly he tied his tie while he was singing and moving at the same time. (A related/unrelated note: during one of these moments of his getting dressed and singing, his shirt was poking out of his unzipped fly and I’m still not sure if that was part of the show or just a casualty of his quick hands.) As they tell you multiple times during the show, Phil Connors is an asshole. There’s no getting past in in the first act. But about ten minutes in, you begin to genuinely care for him and for what he’s being put through, even when he’s being a tremendous jackass. Karl’s good looks, natural charm, and that certain THING that only so many people in this world have, all mix to create the perfect Phil. I spent the entire first act laughing out loud while I spent most of the second act either crying or being close to tears. And without giving away specifics, Groundhog Day might have the most satisfying ending to a show that I’ve seen in years.

I feel like the musical does a much better job than the film does of sharing Phil’s experience and having you understand his frustrations without it getting too repetitive. (I know, it’s Groundhog Day, it’s supposed to be repetitive, but through the magic of song and dance it’s not nearly as annoying as the film can get.) Andy Karl, for me, made Phil Connors so much more sympathetic (eventually) than Bill Murray did. Not a knock on Murray at all (I’m a big fan) just an observation that through his beautiful voice and graceful movement (even when being frantic) Karl won me over in a way I didn’t expect him to. The last time his alarm goes off I started to cry because I just so wanted it to be over for him. Not for us though because I was sad when the show was over because I would have enjoyed it going on and on. There is a job within this production in charge of the “Car Chase Movement.” We get to see two police cars chase a truck through the streets of Punxsutawney in one of the most creative and entertaining car chases in theater history. (Maybe the only car chase in theater history?)

There’s a song in the show called Philanthropy – it’s the scene were Phil runs around the town helping everyone. Some of the choreography is wonderfully frenzied (and I enjoyed the heck out of the tap dancing) but while I watched it today, without realizing it was when Karl hurt himself, I knew immediately it had to be. Watching him weave his way through the entire cast at the pace he was doing it had me flinching, expecting him to wipe out at any moment. Thankfully, he didn’t. What he DID do was left me breathless. It’s disappointing and a little sad that the show will be closing after only five months on West 52nd Street. But in 2018, the show will kick-off an 18-month national tour. Go see this show. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen the show or not, it is well worth the investment. So few shows these days have you leaving the theater feeling categorically better than you did when you went in. Why pass on a chance to be entertained and feel really good?   

Bonus for folks who made it all the way through the blog entry: Andy Karl and Barrett Doss   

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