In today’s Wall Street Journal I review the new musical version of Groundhog Day. Here’s an excerpt.
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Andy Karl’s worst dream came painfully, horrifically true last Friday night: He took a show-stopping fall and injured his left knee 10 minutes before the end of “Groundhog Day,” the new musical based on the 1993 movie. To everyone’s astonishment, Mr. Karl came back out and finished the last scene on a crutch—but he canceled out of Saturday’s shows, the final previews before “Groundhog Day” opened on Monday….
Mr. Karl returned to “Groundhog Day” on Monday, wearing a black knee brace but showing no other visible sign of his agonizing ordeal—and as they say in show business, he killed. A good-looking, magnetically charismatic fellow with a rich singing voice and the effortless moves of an old-time hoofer, Mr. Karl did the impossible: He made you forget about Bill Murray, the star of Harold Ramis’ screen comedy about Phil Connors, a jaded TV weatherman who inexplicably gets stuck in a “Twilight Zone”-like cosmic loop and is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again until he learns the meaning of true love. Instead of aping Mr. Murray’s inimitably cynical performance, Mr. Karl did it his way, playing Connors as a naturally likable guy who has been pickled in the bitter brine of frustration—and he made it work….
Danny Rubin, the co-author of the original screenplay, and Tim Minchin, who wrote the score for “Matilda the Musical,” are jointly responsible for turning “Groundhog Day” into a stage musical, and they’ve done a smart, mostly solid job of it. Likewise Matthew Warchus, who staged “Matilda” with cleverness and verve and has done no less well this time around. I won’t try to tell you, however, that “Groundhog Day: The Musical” is a great show. In truth, it’s an entertaining but fundamentally ill-conceived attempt to do the impossible. Stephen Sondheim, who once gave serious thought to turning Mr. Ramis’ much-loved film into a musical, later explained in an interview why he changed his mind: “It cannot be improved. It’s perfect the way it is.” Bull’s-eye….
So why bother going to see to a musical that fails by definition to improve on perfection? Because it’s safe. It costs more than ever to see a Broadway show, and the number of people who are prepared to drop $149 on a musical about which they know nothing is shrinking accordingly. Fortunately, “Groundhog Day” is much, much better than the usual run of what I call “commodity musicals,” in which hit movies like “Legally Blonde,” “Sister Act” or “Young Frankenstein” are retrofitted with songs and dances but otherwise stick like superglue to their source material….
Sure, “Groundhog Day” is still a gussied-up commodity musical at bottom, in addition to which it lacks a memorable score. Most of Mr. Minchin’s songs are lively but facelessly eclectic, and his overstuffed, ill-crafted lyrics (somebody really should have told him that “erection” and “reception” don’t rhyme) never tell us anything about the characters that we haven’t already learned from the dialogue. What’s more, the first act is so noisy and hectic that the underlying romantic yearning of Phil and Rita (charmingly played by Barrett Doss), the TV producer whom he falls for, gets lost in the clatter. But “Groundhog Day” calms down and finds its emotional footing in the second act, in which Mr. Minchin gives his stars a truly fine ballad, “Seeing You,” that allows them to express their new love with the open-hearted warmth for which you’ve been waiting all night long….
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Read the whole thing here.
Excerpts from the stage version of Groundhog Day: