Thursday, June 08, 2017

Hogging the Spotlight

One of the best vacations my husband and I have taken together was a few years back when we went to London. While we saw and did plenty of amazing things on the trip, the real kernel around which we decided to go in the first place was the musical Matilda. The genius behind that show's music and lyrics, Tim Minchin, is now back with a new effort, Groundhog Day.

Built upon the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray, the Groundhog Day musical adapts the story of smug TV weatherman Phil Connors, forced to relive the same day over and over again until he reforms his selfish ways.

The stage version hews fairly close to the movie's key moments. I actually found this to be more a feature than a bug, as a lot of tremendously entertaining stagecraft went into figuring out how to even present certain things on a theater stage. To show the attempt to get out of town before the blizzard, a foot-high van miniature rolled across the stage only to get a shovel full of "snow" dumped on it by an actor dressed in a giant groundhog costume. More car miniatures (wielded by black-clad puppeteers) were used in a major act one sequence to actually show an entire police chase in a "top down," Pac-Man style.

An early number in Act Two was built around Phil's repeated suicides, and used magicians' techniques of misdirection and body doubles to repeatedly, instantly have Phil waking up in bed an instant after offing himself. The audience knew the gist of how they were being tricked each time, but still gave the cast a round of thunderous applause every time they pulled off another increasingly clever switch.

Starring as Phil Connors, actor Andy Karl pulled off the impossible -- he kept you from ever thinking of Bill Murray's performance from the movie. Karl presented an equally credible but distinctly different version of the character, more insufferable without being irredeemable, less sarcastic without being unfunny, more energetic without compromising the darkness in the story.

The musical made an effort to open up the narrative a bit by giving more back story to characters in the town of Punxsutawney. A handful were given their own solos to better define the problem that Phil would ultimately have to "solve" for them before he'd be released from his repeating day. These numbers generally paused the comedy of the story to make room for a darker, more dramatic moment. It would be going too far to say that these elements were improving on the story of a such a great movie, but it did at least carve out a bit of space for the musical to be its own different thing.

As for the work of Tim Minchin, the reason we wanted to see this in the first place? Well, Matilda was so special (and I've listened to its soundtrack so many times) that my bar was no doubt set unreasonably high. I will be picking up the Groundhog Day soundtrack too, and I hope to unearth gems in it as I listen and relisten. I would generally say that this score is not as strong... though it's also different in some interesting ways.

My general impression is that Matilda is (by far) more clever in its lyrics, full of brilliant turns of phrase, smart rhymes, and playfulness. Groundhog Day has struck me as being the more musically sophisticated of the two. It manipulates motifs in ways that achieve "repetition" without always literally repeating things. It plays with stranger melodies, time signatures, and chord progressions. In these ways, it's quite suited to the story, and probably has many tricks lurking beneath the surface, far more than I could pick up on just watching the show performed once. I suspect this is a score I will grow to appreciate more over time.

I think I probably walked out of theater thinking the production was a B+. In the couple of weeks since, reconsidering what were frankly unreasonable expectations, I've come around to thinking of it more as an A-. And yet Groundhog Day still wasn't the best show we saw in New York. That story still to come in a future post...

No comments: