REAL TALK PSA: When the actual real talk about Groundhog Day (the holiday) and all the accompanying traditions began, the audience laughed. Not at jokes, just at the exposition of establishing the setting: that we’re in Punxsutawney (do you realize how hard it is not to keep typing Pennsatucky?), that old men dressed in period costumes wait to see if a groundhog sees its shadow, that the area where this all goes down is called ‘Gobbler’s Knob’, these kinds of things that are ACTUAL FACTS. The audience cackled at these. Then we realized, holy shit, British people do not have ANY CLUE that this is all 100% accurate. Holy shit. They think this holiday and all these WACKY ASS traditions were made up as part of a comedy movie to get some cheap laughs. Oh especially Gobbler’s Knob – these bros sitting near us could not get over Gobbler’s Knob, because knob is slang for their (raisin-sized I bet DO YOU EVEN LIFT BRO) manparts. I mean, why would people outside of the USA know of this tiny cultural phenomenon in this tiny ass village in Pennsylvania about an animal that is sort of a beaver sort of a squirrel seeing its shadow TO PREDICT THE WEATHER? If something like this happened in England (I’m sure there are equivalents) hell if I’d know anything about it, and I live here now.
This was all confirmed last weekend at a wedding. We were seated across from a very nice couple (letsbefriends!) who had seen the evening show the same day we saw the matinee of “Groundhog Day”! How f-ing random is that! I like to think that the grooms hacked the computers of all the guests to see who had calendar appointments that reflected similar tastes and/or plans and then made the seating charts accordingly. Okay no I don’t like to think that at all but seriously how did they know? So this couple consisted of one Aussie and one Brit, and in talking about the play, we asked them if they thought Groundhog Day was a made up thing. They were ASTOUNDED that it was real. OF COURSE WE THOUGHT IT WAS MADE UP, they positively shouted in disbelief. Are you KIDDING ME?? HOW CAN THAT BE REAL? It went on. They were flabbergasted and hysterical about it. The programmes for this show really by all means need to have a piece inside about how this is a real holiday. They have all other kinds of crap in those programmes that we have to PAY for AND have to spell with extra m’s and e’s so the very least they could do is educate their audiences about small-town USA.
Okay let’s maybe talk about the actual show a bit because you know what, it was good! It was not fantastic; I wanted it to be fantastic. I want everything to be fantastic. But you know what, not everything can be fantastic. I saw so much fantastic stuff in the past year so the bar was really insanely high for the world premiere of a new show. I strongly believe that, after the run in London, its eminent move to Broadway will be for a much tighter, more exciting, more edited show. That’s what pre-Broadway runs are for, to make necessary changes and see what audiences respond to and what needs work. I mean, unless they don’t change anything because audiences are jumping to their feet every show, so we’ll see. I hope they make some changes.
Actually, honestly, I don’t know what they could change on the small scale, because the only really disappointing thing was the score! The acting was wonderful (we’ll get to that), the book was really f-ing hilarious at times, the set was fine (more on that later), the NUMEROUS shout-outs to Penn State were great (so many ensemblists in PSU gear!!!), so really, the score is what needs work. And the score is usually the last thing to undergo huge overhaul, because, well, it’s the cornerstone of a musical. But the score is what was I would want worked on here out of the whole of the show. Well, the music was; the lyrics were clever, as you’d expect of Tim Minchin (who I must admit I know primarily because of the genius that is “Matilda”). Yet we know he also writes beautiful and provocative music. If I heard the music without knowing who wrote it, Minchin would be the very last composer I would guess. It felt very blah. I remember not one part of one song. And that is usually the test for whether a score will catch on in popularity – whether audience members walk out at the end of the show humming any bits to themselves. It shows something hit them and stuck. But guys, I didn’t remember how songs went immediately after the songs themselves ended. Like 2 seconds later, not the usual gauge of ‘after the show ends’. That’s crazy. It just felt uninspired and more like ‘generic musical’ than the challenging genre-bending stuff a creative show like this needs. Husband and the wedding couple, however, disagreed, and they all thought the score was fine. But I am right.
Even with a lackluster score, the show was highly enjoyable. Why? Andy Karl. Le sigh. Andy Karl is a fantastic stalwart on Broadway, having starred in “Legally Blonde” (not as Elle) like DECADES ago it feels like, and then went on to star in “Rocky” (which was panned but I liked!), “Unfinished Dickens”…that’s not it…um…OH “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, “On the Twentieth Century” with Kristin Chenoweth which he was AMAZ in and wore the nicest suit my husband really liked it (he has good taste), and now finally is starring on the West End (I’m just gonna go for it). His impeccable comic delivery lifts every inch of this show higher and higher and turns some whatever lines into things that made us cackle hysterically. Not joking, hysterically. The book and lyrics really had some hilarious parts, and his timing made everything even better. In one of the early songs, before he realizes he’s actually stuck in a time loop and is still acting very cocky, he sings blah blah I’m leaving, “suck my balls I’m outta here”. Ridiculous in a musical! And hilarious when delivered, because he is magicked. Something I laughed at way too hard was in this flashback sort-of number, a duet with an old flame. As they reminisced about their fling, with Phil remembering one thing and then the woman repeating the line, one time she didn’t repeat so much as paraphrase and I couldn’t stop laughing: Phil sang something about their picnic “And we ate half a pound of pate” and the woman responded, “We ate way too much pate”. It was so stupid but something about their delivery made us laugh so hard. The funniest ensemble scene (because everything Andy did in the early stages of Act I was top notch hilarity) came as a montage of doctor visits. As Phil begins freaking out about his circumstances, he goes to see every doctor imaginable to see if there’s a medical explanation for his predicament. One is a Scientologist who tells him to read Dianetics; one is this great red-head-dreaded nerd; and the best ‘doctor’ tells him he feels like he’s reliving the same day over and over because, you guessed it, he’s allergic to gluten. It was so funny!
One thing I don’t understand is how this show cost so much. It’s rumored to have cost $16.5 million, which isn’t out of the ordinary for a Broadway musical nowadays, but I am pretty sure is unusual for the West End and the Old Vic. I expected that money to be put to good use, but I would not have guessed from the set that it was so expensive. The sets were good and very appropriate, but nothing stood out as being anything more than standard set design. The opening used projections (on the curtain), the best use of projections I’ve yet seen (because it was supposed to be television), but I doubt that was that expensive. Seriously, I don’t get it! Was Minchin expensive? I kinda hope Karl is making bank but I doubt it. Just flabbergasting. I also really am curious why previously attached producer Scott Rudin (god he has a hand in EVERYTHING) walked.
The coolest thing design-wise, however, maybe was worth all the money, although it was really just stage magic and not things that cost lots of money. When Phil starts spiraling into a depression, he tries to kill himself. I mean, he succeeds, but then he just immediately wakes up starting the day over. He kills himself again and again and again, tries every way imaginable, but keeps waking up. It’s really incredibly morbid. But, this production makes this whole section of the story absolutely mind-blowing because we see Phil die in some way, but then an instant later Andy Karl sits up in the bed at 6:00am. It first became noticeable that this was some incredible stage work going on when Phil takes the head from a guy wearing the groundhog costume, puts it on, and then steps in front of a truck. Honk, crash, 2 seconds pass and Andy Karl sits up in the bed on the opposite side of the stage. People started applauding. I kept trying to follow Andy himself to see what was happening but it was seriously magic. Lots of doubles and trapdoors, I’m sure, but also magic. This was definitely the most impressive part of the physical production. I really want to know how they were doing this!
The only parts I thought were actually bad can be easily fixed. Well, maybe not easily, but they are fixable. First of all, I’ve talked in the past about how important rousing Act II openers are, because you need to get the audience re-engaged after checking out for 20 minutes. It’s really important to quickly gain some of the momentum back that was lost at intermission. Well. I hate to say it but I think Groundhog Day’s Act II opener was the worst one yet. It was performed really well, and done nicely, but seriously, WHAT THE F. The girl playing Nancy, the ‘hot’ chick that Phil picks up early on, sings the song, alone, about how she grew up thinking about Barbies and beauty standards and is doomed to just be seen as the hot one all her life when there is more to her. Now, of course, that’s a sentiment I will not condemn, and she sings well, but the entire song I was staring wide-eyed asking WHY?? This is a character who had maybe 1 line in Act I and has maybe 1 more line in Act II, so why on EARTH does she have a whole song to herself? We barely knew anything by this point about Rita, the female lead (Carlyss Peer, who is good but in an underwritten role so doesn’t shine really until the end), but this tiny ensemble character begins Act II? DOES NOT COMPUTE. Give Andy another song ffs! Or Rita! Or, really, do what I thought was happening before Nancy moved on to Verse #2 – make it a song where every ensemble member sings one verse about who they are, the people Phil never gets to know about. That would be interesting at least, to give every single townsperson the chance to say one little thing that Phil will never learn no matter how long he interacts with them. But a whole song for Nancy? PUH-LEASE. It made me really mad.
Luckily, something else happened soon after that made me even madder!!! This wasn’t the fault of the show at all, but of the audience. Ned Ryerson, that great old classmate who recognizes Phil but also annoys Phil so much that sometimes Phil punches him, was just as good here as he is in the movie. However, later on, when Phil starts trying to be a decent person, Ned shows him pictures of his family, and Phil says, “Whoa, is that your wife? She’s hot.” And Ned replies, “She was.” And the lad-filled/ignorant audience CACKLED hysterically because they thought Ned was saying that his wife is no longer hot. But no you drunk pale-ass simpletons, he was saying that SHE’S DEAD. We were horrified for the cast and for humanity that so many audience members just assumed bro-humor. It was really atrocious. I think perhaps this can be fixed if they change the word ‘hot’ to ‘beautiful’ maybe? Or something softer? Because lads hear the word ‘hot’ and it primes their brain into lad-humor mode, so maybe that would work. I don’t know, it’s not the show’s fault but they do need to address that this sort of misunderstanding should not be allowed to keep happening. Oh humanity is so scary sometimes.
Thank goodness those are the only real standouts for badness. The show as a whole is a wonderful effort, really enjoyable and with the potential to be really great. It does need some editing to move to Broadway, and just to be the best it can be, so I hope its producers aren’t babies about making those changes. I would really like more development for Rita, who I understand can’t really be a fully fleshed out character until Phil starts trying to see others as full-fledged people, which happens towards the end of the show, but still, give her something better than the songs she has about how she is a woman. Let’s just say you can tell men wrote this.
Question: Why didn’t Phil ever try to leave the town before the storm hit, like as soon as he woke up? I wonder what would have happened. Is it just because he couldn’t get anyone to drive him? Because I’m sure he stole a car or two during his 130 years stuck in this loop. Also, how did he not lose his mind? I would have in 5. At the end, when he realizes SPOILER that it’s actually a new day, he stares at Rita so long in silence that was incredibly powerful and actually made me cry. But hot damn, if this were realistic, he would have been absolutely driven clinically insane by now.
Anyway, see it if you can because Andy Karl is amazing, it’s a new musical that is really quite good and well done, and then hopefully when we see it in a year or so it will be even better. Also Andy better be nominated for an Olivier.
Ugh. See above. At least no phones rang or lit up in my field of vision, but lad-duos were talking to each other THE ENTIRE TIME. Like these guys who don’t go to the theatre often were so excited to see the play of the movie they like, but they didn’t bother behaving properly. I almost punched heads.
Andy came out really quickly after a matinee! I was so happy! He was so nice! I didn’t wait for anyone else but bumped into some chorus members on the street and they were very nice and appreciate when I said heyyyyyyy.