If you haven't seen the GROUNDHOG DAY, the movie (yes, Virginia, another musical based on a movie--will it never end?), it tells the story of a cynical small-town weatherman who, for some reason, is cursed to relive incessantly Groundhog Day until he is cured of his cynicism. Danny Rubin has adapted his own screenplay. The book is clever but the show depends more on visual magic than dialogue. Tim Minchin's lyrics are always witty. His best tunes are in the second act (more on that later).
The poor denizens of Paris in LES MISERABLES only got to spin incessantly on one revolving stage. In Matthew Warchus's constantly clever--some might say too clever by half--production, the citizens of the small town of Punxsutawney, Pa. whir around on five revolves. You wait for them to sing "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off." The scenery for GROUNDHOG DAY (Rob Howell designer), does all the dancing. The cast only has to stand still to move. After a while this incessant whirling gets to be too much, distracting us from caring about the show's central character, cynical weatherman Phil Connors (the excellent Andrew Call). What a role Phil Connors offers a singing actor! He's never off stage except during an unnecessary song in sung by a secondary character at the beginning of Act II (why take focus from your central character at the beginning of the second act?). I begin with Matthew Warchus's too clever by half, too busy by half, production because it is both the show's strength and its greatest weakness. The show should be about Phil, not the stage machinery. It takes a strong performer to steal focus from the moving real estate. I read that Broadway stalwart Andy Karl, who injured his knee last week, gave such a performance. For those who have tickets to a performance featuring Andrew Call (strange about the similarity in names), don't despair. Call doesn't try to imitate Karl -- he gives his own performance. He looks like the generic forever cute small market tv anchorperson or weatherman. He's the mediocre guy who thinks he deserves a better, more appreciative world. Call sings well and gets through all the many stage tricks as if he has been rehearsing them for years. His Phil is steely until he finally melts. It's a tour de force just to get through all an actor has to get through in that production and Call does much more than that. He makes Phil his own and doesn't get overwhelmed by all the whirring furniture. Barrett Doss is charming and sings well as Phil's love interest. The supporting cast is appropriately eccentric.
Is there any other musical in which the second act is stronger than the first? At my performance, the audience seemed underwhelmed with the show at the intermission. In fact some people around me left. The barrage of visual cleverness didn't even stop for applause at the end of numbers. For all the work of Call and his fellow actors, the first act seemed frenetic and heartless. Call tried to establish a rapport with the audience but everything moved to fast. The second act slows down enough for characters to establish themselves in solid songs. Occasionally characters are even allowed to stand still. Finally the audience is given a chance to identify with the people on stage. The audience is given the opportunity to applaud songs. The second act did what first acts usually do--it allowed us to get to care about the characters and performers.
I may be wrong but I don't think GROUNDHOG DAY is going to be the success in New York that it was in London. Until Act II it all seems as heartless as its central character. Clever, yes. Spectacular, yes. It's also a bit exhausting.