Groundhog Day and Who Deserves the Tony?

Andy Karl as the Weatherman stuck in February 2. Photo @ Sara Krulwich

Well I did something I never thought possible -- this afternoon I saw Groundhog Day: The Musical and with that I've seen all four musicals up for a Tony for Best Musical.  I've also now seen the two actors thought to be in hot contention for Best Actor in a Musical: Dear Evan Hansen's Ben Platt vs. Groundhog Day's Andy Karl.

How did I like Groundhog Day? Well ... uh ... I liked the parts more than the whole, if that makes sense. I LOVED Tim Minchin's breezy, catchy, compulsively listenable score. I think "Small Town, USA," "Nobody Cares," "One Day," "Night Will Come," "Seeing You," are all great songs and the strength of the score will give Groundhog Day a life after award seasons are over. I also LOVED Andy Karl's smarmy, smug Phil Connors. He plays the character totally different from Bill Murray -- Murray is all sarcastic bite, Karl is a glib pump-and-dump playboy. Andy Karl actually looks like those vapidly handsome weathermen that populate the local news. His voice is also sleepily seductive. In other words, he wins you over even though for most of the show he's a Class A jerk. I know Karl hurt his knee during previews and he wears a leg brace that he now uses for comic effect in the scene with the fur coat (you have to watch the show to get it).

I also loved Rob Howell's scenic design, a rotating set that cleverly allowed the same scenes to keep repeating themselves throughout the musical. Everyone goes on about The Great Comet's set design and yes it is clever to turn a Broadway theater into a cabaret club, but I also believe in the power of old-fashioned, beautiful stage sets and Groundhog Day's set is magical.

Barrett Doss, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Despite all these great things I thought Groundhog Day suffered from some structural problems -- one is the radical turn the show makes in the second act. It goes from funny and edgy to serious and sappy without much transition. One minute Phil is trying to kill himself to get out of living in February 2, the next minute he's acting like a transformed Scrooge and running all over town doing wonderful things for the down-and-out. Another issue is that Phil's love interest Rita (Barrett Doss) is pleasant and sweet but the chemistry between the two actors is not particularly dynamic. The big 11 o'clock love duet number "Seeing You" thus had less emotional impact than expected.

The supporting characters are not as well-developed as they could be. For instance, Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) is a girl Phil has a one-night stand with. She's never really a big presence in the show, but in Act Two she suddenly gets a sad ballad "Seeing Nancy," which is a lovely tune but the audience hasn't really gotten to know Nancy. So the number was a bit formulaic and (IMO) a rather obvious way to turn the show from humorous to serious. Ned Ryerson (John Sanders) also goes from being a one-note obnoxious insurance salesman to singing a serious song of grief for his wife ("Night Will Come"). The melody itself is haunting. But again, we haven't had a chance to really know Ned beyond the few laugh lines.

As a whole, the show doesn't have the tight focus of Dear Evan Hansen or Come From Away. It lacks the showy glitz of The Great Comet. Personally, I think the race for Best Musical shouldn't even be a race -- Dear Evan Hansen is in a class by itself. However all the other three musicals are very strong -- Come From Away is the feel-good type of show audiences crave, The Great Comet is the offbeat type of show theater nerds love, and Groundhog Day is a genuine star vehicle for a leading Broadway actor. As for Best Actor, Andy Karl's performance, as charming and wonderful as it is, isn't as overpowering as Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. So I don't think Groundhog Day will win Best Musical or Best Actor. But that doesn't mean it's not worth watching -- it is. And it might have the most classic, beautiful score of the four nominees. So Best Original Score? Best Set Design? Maybe?

Volle and Wagner, photo @ Richard Termine
I also caught the last performance of The Flying Dutchman at the Met. Although the performance was anchored by the veteran bass-baritone Michael Volle in the title role, the performance also (rare for Wagner) featured the promise of some younger voices. Amber Wagner's Senta was powerfully sung, with a gleaming sound that reminded me of the young Debbie Voigt. This is a punishing role and her top occasionally became wayward but she has hands-down the most impressive dramatic soprano voice I've heard in ... well, a long time. Ben Bliss's Steersman and AJ Glueckert's Erik offered handsome, robust tenor voices. And most of all, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will be the Met's next musical director, gave a thrilling account of the score that was very different from James Levine's stately, slow style. The production was old and stodgy, but the performance was filled with hope for the future of Wagnerian singer. Fingers crossed.

I also saw Waitress a second time and loved it even more -- Sara Bareilles' voice was even more powerful, Christopher Fitzgerald was back is Ogie, and the whole evening had a wonderful estrogen-receptor energy.


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