by Mo Brady
Ok, I’ll admit it. After seeing Groundhog Day for the first time, I walked out of the August Wilson Theatre with a feeling of “meh.” It was this past April and I had been seeing a lot of shows. Maybe I was tired. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations. But for whatever reason, the show didn’t “land with me.”
I don’t mean there weren’t things to appreciate about the show. Perhaps the most interesting was the diversity of the cast, not just in terms of ethnicity but size and age as well. That success was detailed beautifully in this feature on onstageblog.com by Chris Petersen (which you should read if you haven’t - it’s very well done). In addition to the casting, I was impressed with other aspects: the technical spectacle, the wit of the show. But I thought that Groundhog Day “wasn’t for me.”
Then, a few things happened. First, a trusted friend told me it was his favorite show of the season. In a year stacked with chamber musicals like Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away, he thought that Groundhog Day was the big, fun production that audiences were looking for. Second, I read Jesse Green’s review of the Broadway season’s cast albums where he detailed his opinion of the score changing from initial dismissal to eventual appreciation.
And I thought to myself, maybe I missed something.
Luckily, the nice folks at Groundhog Day offered me the chance to see the show a second time. And afterwards, I found myself much like Phil Connors, the story’s love-to-hate protagonist, appreciating the residents of Punxsutawney much more upon a second viewing.
Granted, there are some challenges with falling in love with the ensemble of this show. The opening scenes set them up as overly chipper and grating, as a living antithesis to the story’s leading man. That dichotomy makes it hard to fall in love with the town itself for the first 20 minutes of the show. Which is just enough time to dismiss them as fake and unremarkable. We see the ensemble actors as individuals, but we aren’t asked to fall in love with them.
But if you look closely in those first 20 minutes, you can see hints of the fully fleshed-out humans these characters will become to Phil (and, by proxy, to us in the audience). The actors have been encouraged to have complicated opinions about the show’s proceedings, which you can see with the conversations and asides the characters have long after they’ve finished standing in the spotlight with leading man Andy Karl.
As I followed Phil and Rita (Barrett Doss) through the show, I found moments of appreciation for the show’s smaller characters as well, from the perfect musical comedy of Joelle (Jenna Rubaii) to the heartfelt sincerity of the Chubby Man (Michael Fatica).
Also, the Groundhog Day ensemble is as funny as hell. This cast made me laugh with sharp, perfectly performed repetition of one liners, from Josh Lamon’s “In’t he cute?” to Travis Waldschmidt’s “Jeepers, Debbie.” A special shout out has to go to Lamon, Tari Kelly, Gerald Canonico, Rheaume Crenshaw, Sean Montgomery and Joseph Medeiros, who in the song “Stuck” play LOL-inducing characters attempting to diagnose Phil with Reiki, Homeopathy, Cow Psychiatry, Scientology, the 12 Step Program and Jesus, respectively.
By the show’s finale, I was utterly charmed by the show’s cast. I found myself rooting for Larry (played with subtle wit by Vishal Vaidya) in his burgeoning love for Nancy. I was moved by Tari Kelly’s Piano Teacher, and how she balances her role perfectly between humor and heart.
But perhaps the moment that hit me the most was something I had completely missed when I saw the show the first time. In “Seeing You,” Phil and Rita are surrounded by couples pairing off to slow dance. Just out of the spotlight, Waldschmidt as Jeff, the town diner’s waiter, connects with Medeiros as Hank, Punxsutawney’s Deputy. This time, I sat raptured as these two characters began slow dancing.
As a gay man, I don’t often see truthful romance that I can relate to conveyed onstage. But in that moment, I watched Jeff and Hank transition from awkward dance partners to the beginnings of a connection. I felt myself transported back to slow dancing with a boyfriend for the first time in public, and how terrifying and exhilarating that can be.
I realized in this second viewing that the success of Groundhog Day lies in its relatability. In two acts of subtle interactions between complex characters, Punxsutawney is a rich and vibrant place. Yes, I appreciated the score more upon a second viewing. Yes, I was even more enchanted by the show’s technical feats. Yes, I found myself guffawing at the ridiculous comedy. But, in catching the small moments played between the show’s 21 actors, Groundhog Day became a heartwarming piece of theatre as well.
Mo Brady is co-creator and host of The Ensemblist podcast.