'Groundhog Day: The Musical' Review: A Splendid, High-Spirited Retelling Of A Classic

The Groundhog Day musical is a joyful experience about one huge jerk. As Bill Murray's take on the same character does in the Harold Ramis film classic, Phil eventually learns his lessons, but this stage adaptation from director Matthew Warchus, playwright Danny Rubin, and composer Tim Minchin turn his cantankerousness up a couple of notches before he does. The Phil in the Groundhog Day Musical isn't the same Phil from the movie. The show has the same character, attitude, and spirit, but Rubin and Minchin have made that familiar story and day feel fresh and new. But it also doesn't forget the heart and laughs from the Harold Ramis classic, either.

Below, check out our Groundhog Day Musical review.

Rubin, who co-wrote the original film, adapted it into a stage play last year when it debuted at The Old Vic in London. Nothing has changed about Phil Connor's dilemma – reliving February 2 over and over – but Rubin has expanded the story. With almost an hour of additional material, most of the side characters have been beefed up. There's more of Ned (John Sanders), Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry, and the two drunks, Ralph (Raymond J Lee) and Gus (Andrew Call). While they played a small but pivotal role in Phil's journey in the movie, in the musical, they provide more than laughs as we see their lives over and over again.

Both Ned and Nancy have their own songs, "Playing Nancy" and "Night Will Come," that reveal themselves to be more than what Phil sees. "Once you're known for low-cut tops, it's pretty hard to stop," Nancy sings. "It isn't easy to break free of playing Nancy." She sings of being leered at in world run by men, "feeling like collateral in someone else's battle," and aspiring to be more than Nancy. It's an unexpected, heartbreaking but hopeful song showing she's more than a stop in Phil Connor's story. She's stuck like Phil, but in every day of her life. The song expands on the themes of Groundhog Day, reminding us Phil's fantastical experience is a relatable one at its core, and it also makes Nancy more than a character Phil sleeps with.

As for the star of the show, the dissatisfied, disgruntled, and often mean-spirited weatherman Phil Connors, Andy Karl is fantastic. When he first takes the stage, any preconception of how the character should act disappears. It's the same character brought to life with an entirely different approach. There's not a hint of Bill Murray in Karl's performance. Like Murray, though, Karl never tries to soften Phil Connor's edges.

Groundhog Day pic

Because it's a longer version of the story, the character is even more unpleasant at times and we're spending even more time watching him up close and personal. But that's what I love about Groundhog Day: The Musical – Connors is more aggressive, angrier, and louder, but no less empathetic. Karl truly earns the character's new outlook on life, which means the show earns its grand finale, which perfectly translates the poignancy and beautiful simplicity of the Ramis' film. The musical hits the same major beats as the movie, but that's not how it captures its essence. It does so by filling the audience with the same sense of optimism, by expressing through laughs and tragedy that, with a single day, even someone like Connors can change their tune and improve.

If it weren't for Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), Groundhog: Day The Musical would be an even bleaker affair. The musical explores the dark depths of Rubin's original story to the fullest extent. A song called "Hope" is sung as Connor kills himself over and over again. Never is it played for laughs. There's a heaviness, a real weight to "Hope" that's emotional and intense, which some striking, almost nightmarish production design intensifies.

Minchin's lyrics are often hysterical, but he's just as successful with the more melancholic tunes about despair or isolation. Sometimes the songwriter can effortlessly mix laughs and sadness, like when Doss sings "One Day," a thematically relevant song that both defines character and earns a lot of laughs. Doss has perhaps my favorite number in the musical, "If I Had My Time Again," in which she sings about regrets with bittersweetness and cheerfulness. It's a glimpse into what she'd do if she were the one living February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, every day. "One Day" and other songs delve into the original questions raised by Groundhog Day about karma, morality, and time.

Like how Karl gets Connor's prickliness, Doss nails Hanson's kindness and sincerity. Their performances help make Groundhog Day: The Musical stand on its own as it honors and embodies the most crucial elements of the film. The production is not playing a series of greatest hits. There are fun, sometimes subtle nods, but never too many – and no "I Got You Babe" – to make the musical feel like it's simply banking on the love of the original or treading familiar ground.

Rubin, Minchin, and all involved bring new elements to the table, including an 8-foot tall groundhog playing the drums (an unforgettable sight), a terrific car chase involving miniatures taking the stage, and even more pleasant but not always so happy-go-lucky residents of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Connor's never-ending day is again filled with memorable characters and faces that help give his journey and the town of Punxsutawney more life. Groundhog Day: The Musical is a rousing, feel-good experience, albeit one filled with misery and death. But how else do you appreciate the good things if you don't suffer through the bad?

Groundhog Day: The Musical is playing at the August Wilson Theater in New York City until Sunday, September 17.