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“Groundhog Day” At the August Wilson Theatre, Saturday, March 25th, 2017, Reviewed


Song for song, the last great new musical was “Spring Awakening” and before that, I dunno but it was probably by Adam Guettel. It sure wasn’t by Tim Minchin. Minchin was the composer-lyricist behind the abysmal “Matilda” of which I wrote (here): ” the book by Dennis Kelly isn’t clear enough and the music and lyric by Tim Minchin -this is his first musical, is worse.” Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics to the still in previews at the August Wilson “Groundhog Day”. Based upon the Harold Ramis co-written and directed, Bill Murray starring movie of the same name. The other script writer was Danny Rubin, who is responsible for writing the book of the theatrical production. And while the book isn’t perfect, along with the staging, it saves “Groundhog Day” from being a less than a spectacular albeit minor Broadway musical.

What is it with musicals and the lack of good music? I don’t expect Tim Minchin to be Rodgers and Hammerstein combined, but I do expect him to be a talented duffer like Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is astounding how bad the songs are here, the second act opens with a big ballad (also: a useless ballad, it pushes nothing along), “Playing Nancy” -a truly creepy piece of character development for a character with zero inner life and Rebecca Faulkenberry (who knows her way around bad songs through her work as Mary Jane in the Spiderman debacle) sings its tail off and it is just not a good song. An unmemorable, histrionic drag that is barely paid off. And, with the exception of a TV jingle, it is the best song in the entire show.

But we are at that place where we can live with bad songs in good musicals. “Wicked” suffered through lousy songs to name but one, and  for all of Hamilton’s gifts, the songs weren’t that great, Drake wouldn’t piss on em. Hell, neither would A$AP Rocky. If it was, where is the hit single? Of new productions only “Sunday In The Park With George’ has a terrific score. You can’t congratulate “Beautiful” for Carole King’s songs. What happened? It is impossible to remember one damn song off “Groundhog Day”. Why did they not send him back to work on songs that HAVE NO MEMORABLE TUNES, why didn’t somebody insist? The incidental music between acts is better than the big bang numbers, and the opening introduction, playing with “today” and “tomorrow,”  doesn’t earn its uplift and the other soon come “Smalltown, USA”  is all straw and no stir. Everybody has their big number and they are all lousy. Everything about the songs is a better business bureau lawsuit in waiting. The ballads are completely generic, even what should have been an emotional highlight when the strictly for laughs insurance salesman Ned “Zing” Myerson’s hidden depths solo “Night Will Come” fails to provide the empathic sorrow it promises. The ever returning townspeople’s motifs are jazz oompah shruggables, like “The Music Man” never happened.

“Groundhog Day,” is the story of weatherman Phil Connors who has gone to Punxsutawney to  cover the proceedings (if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow Spring will be early, if he sees his shadow, six more weeks of winter) and stuck and gets stuck in a time loop on. The movie is now a beloved classic, written about often as Connors attempts to deal with waking up on the same day  (they figure Phil remains stuck on 2/2 for over ten years), until he realizes that only by taking care of his fellow man can he move forward. Connors is played by Andy Karl -who was the best thing about “Rocky The Musical” (another show in search of a song) and he is a huge presence, almost the only presence, in the show and is a tall, handsome man, with a powerful but not overwhelming voice and a skilled actor who slips through the many stages of Connor with ease. he has no songs but he has a lot to do and joined by his (associate) producer, an effective Barrett Doss in a much less well written role, he shares a chemistry. Not unlike Andie McDowell who was as delightful in the movie as possible, there is something disarming about Barrett Doss . Get past those two actors and there is nothing, the others, and there are several, people in the story are simply too underwritten to matter. The movie’s Larry (the cameraman) was performed by the great comedian Chris Elliott, who gave Bill Murray a serious run for his money. Perhaps Vishal Vaidya might have done as well in the same role here, it is hard to tell. They forgot to write it. And on and on and on from the old man to the piano teacher, the roles just drift, they don’t matter: they exist to happen again and again and not more because the roles aren’t written well enough.

The book, which adheres closely to the movie, with some hugely inventive moments, a car chase has to be seen to be believed, though the secondary characters are poorly drawn;. Better is the use of the space, choreographers Peter Darling and Ellen Kane could well get a Tony for his skill in jingling time and place shifts with so much skill; it isn’t the dancing, it is the intricate as at timepiece clicking in of moments and then repeating with variations and Rob Howell’s scenic design is the most masterful on Broadway today. That wouldn’t be enough the save it but saved it is. On stage, the actions recur over and over again and due to the staging, due to the production qualities and the shading, due to the motifs showing from the bedroom Connors stays in to the marching band he walks around, the groundhog itself they all become branded elements of the same day recurring: the effect is deja vu and more, it is like Disney’s castle, the various elements of the day are talismanic moments of this time span. It is this return again and again, the same people, the same colors, the same moods pulled out, nobody aging, nobody changing: it is a small vision of life, the way are own lives are branded by people and place. The movie is about the magic but the musical isn’t, the musical is about the trick of repetition. The closing of the first act repeats the day at a breakneck pace and it is a brilliant, scary intensity: though life takes a certain amount of time, it also goes by in a similar way, what seems slow is actually extremely fast and the microcosm of the day is the essential of a philosophy. Not help others but the speed of time is the meaning of life.

That genius makes all the many weaknesses irrelevant,

Grade: B+




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