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Entertainment & Arts

Review: With a heroic performance by its injured star, ‘Groundhog Day’ limps through opening night

Groundhog Day August Wilson Theatre Theatre Owned / Operated by Jujamcyn Theaters (Jordan Roth: Pre
Andy Karl plays Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” at the August Wilson Theatre in New York.
(Joan Marcus)
Theater Critic

Andy Karl, the star of the new Broadway musical “Groundhog Day,” reported for duty on Monday night at the August Wilson Theatre for the production’s official New York opening. It was uncertain whether he’d make it after suffering a knee injury during Friday’s press preview that stopped the show for about 15 minutes and necessitated an announcement no one ever wants to hear in a theater: “Is there a doctor in the house?”

After finishing the show in hobbled condition, Karl was out for the rest of the weekend, and no one was sure when he’d return. Anxiety was running high. This is the period when Broadway shows are opening one after the other to meet the April 27 Tony Award eligibility cutoff date, and there’s not a lot of leeway in the schedule.

Making matters more nerve-racking, Karl has been waiting a Broadway lifetime for the role of jaded weatherman Phil Connors, who’s sentenced to repeat the same February day over and over again until he learns the Capra-esque lesson that will allow him to appreciate life in all its humble glory. A two-time Tony-nominated actor, Karl has long been a prized musical theater stud with a sleek voice and a sneaky gift for slapstick. But he won an Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony) for his performance in the London production of “Groundhog Day,” and he was all set to duplicate his triumph in New York.

Would a hard landing in the show’s physically exuberant second act spoil this script? Not a chance.

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Karl was greeted with a hero’s reception when he stepped foot on stage in front of an audience full of family, friends and, most worried of all, investors. He wore a black knee brace that was exposed in scenes in which his character stripped down to his boxers. His limp, subtle at first, became more noticeable in the second act. But it didn’t detract from his performance, which is the biggest asset in this otherwise shaky show.

“Groundhog Day: The Musical,” which has a book by Danny Rubin (who adapted his own screenplay) and a score by Tim Minchin (the composer and lyricist of the musical “Matilda”), is built around Karl as much as the 1993 Harold Ramis film was built around Bill Murray. Yet no one would confuse their characters.

Whereas Murray’s Phil was reflexively arrogant in a way that suggested he needed a strong antidepressant and some talk therapy, Karl is cocky in the handsome TV star mode. He’s still hatefully seductive, but the charm of this egotistical frat boy has curdled with age. (In real estate terms, he’d be a gorgeous fixer-upper with peeling wallpaper, mice in the walls and a rank garden.)

A much-beloved modern fable with a sardonic twist, “Groundhog Day” has the narrative makings of a successful musical comedy. The tale is repetitive and made for the screen, but the moral is theatrically satisfying and the mix of jaundiced wisecracks and romantic feeling is perfect for today’s Broadway.

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Andy Karl and the company of “Groundhog Day.”
Andy Karl and the company of "Groundhog Day."
(Joan Marcus)

So what’s gone wrong — or should I say only half right? The production by Matthew Warchus (artistic director of London’s Old Vic, where the musical had its world premiere) finds clever theatrical solutions to deal with the inherently cinematic nature of the material. A car chase scene begins with actors crammed into a jokey stage vehicle and culminates in a drag race of toy cars.

The logistical trickery that manages to get Phil back into his room at the kitschy bed-and-breakfast for each new iteration of this never-ending day is astonishing. No matter how wild the preceding escapade, he still magically wakes up again in the same bed to the same radio news chatter about Punxsutawney Phil, the celebrity groundhog of this hick Pennsylvania town that Forecaster Phil has traveled to in an annual rite he openly scorns.

The fundamental problem with the show has to do with the monotony of musical storytelling. The first act has these numbers that are as tediously imprisoning as the situation Phil finds himself in. They’re not so much songs as musical loops that reinforce what we already know about small-town Punxsutawney.

Minchin can’t figure out how to interest us musically or lyrically in the situation of a character who is meant to be shallow and disagreeable for the first half of the show. The musical numbers get better in the second half, but the most introspective songs are assigned to secondary characters, such as pesky insurance agent Ned Ryerson (John Sanders) and the lonely and misused town beauty, Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry).

Karl, who is musically defined more by his bizarre circumstances than by his personality, gets a couple of rousing numbers in the second act as his character moves through arrogance and despair to humility and hope. But I found myself more drawn into Karl’s predicament than to Phil’s. A line from the darkly manic number “Hope” — “There will be mornings you’ll be utterly defeated by your laces” — was delivered with a conspiratorial wink that elicited laughter and cheers from the opening night crowd. A number demanding a good deal of running was stylishly mimed to spare Karl’s wonky knee.

Barrett Doss as Rita and Andy Karl as Phil.
Barrett Doss as Rita and Andy Karl as Phil.
(Joan Marcus)

Barrett Doss, who plays Rita Hanson, the associate producer on assignment with Phil, has a lovely singing voice that magnifies the character’s emotional attractiveness. But this love match seems more theoretical than actual. Rita’s goodness and Phil’s eventual desire to improve his nature seem on paper like a good combination, but the actors don’t have much chemistry. The emotional X-factor that connected Murray with Andie MacDowell in the movie is missing in the musical.

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“Groundhog Day” is ultimately a vehicle for Karl’s virtuosity. Even moving gingerly, he has no problem anchoring this large-scale production. A sexy musical comedy screwball with a voice that can hold its own with Broadway’s best, he found a show that fully exploits his unique combination of gifts. He has proved himself a trouper and deserves all the hip hip hoorays coming his way. But let’s hope fate eventually frees him up for a more satisfying musical.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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