You have to admire the dedication of Slow Burn Theatre to revive musicals that got insufficient love on Broadway. (Yes, we’re looking at you Big Fish, Side Show and Parade.) Still, you have to also accept, no matter how well the company performs them, some of these shows are simply subpar.
Which brings us to Groundhog Day, the stage adaptation of the 1993 Bill Murray movie about the egotistical TV weatherman who begrudgingly covers the rodent predicter of Punxsutawney, Pa., and finds himself doomed to keep repeating the events of Feb. 2.
With a score by Tim Minchin (Matilda) and a book by Danny Rubin (co-writer of the movie), the show sticks closely to the film’s plot without solving its central challenge: How to tell a story that keeps repeating itself without feeling repetitive.
The musical managed to run for five months on Broadway in 2017, largely on the charisma of Andy Karl as insufferable womanizer Phil Connors. The Slow Burn production similarly trades in on the charms of its leading man, Clay Cartland, whose stage presence and likability almost transport us past his character’s inherent smarminess.
Still, there is the matter of that tape loop narrative that makes the first act seem longer than it really is, before Phil has a redemptive attitude change, not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge.
The townfolk of Punxsutawney – the objects of Phil Connors’ scorn – are very much a character in the show and director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater moves them about the Broward Center’s Amaturo stage with skill, even getting them to dance a bit in the February cold.
If only Minchin’s songs were more distinctive. Mimicking the repetitive plot, the score has numerous reprises, yet the tunes refuse to stick in the brain. Some of his lyrics about small-town life are amusing, but nothing that would evoke envy in Stephen Sondheim (who once contemplated musicalizing Groundhog Day before rejecting the notion.)
Still, Fitzwater and his sizeable cast sell the heck out of the show as if they are oblivious to its second-rate nature. Kimmi Johnson (recently Princess Fiona in Slow Burn’s Shrek the Musical) is even better here as Rita, Phil’s put-upon producer and ultimate romantic interest. Even if you never really buy their attraction for each other – I certainly did not – you will enjoy her selling the first act finale, “One Day.”
As Nancy, a one-night conquest of Phil’s, Leah Sessa’s character consists mainly of her skin-tight jeans, but she scores with a solo tangent, “Playing Nancy,” that opens the second act. Michael Scott Ross is a standout as the insurance salesman from Phil’s past that he encounters day after day. And ultimately he demonstrates a surprisingly musical voice on his spotlight number, “Night Will Come.”
Regardless of the quality of the material it selects, Slow Burn has become reliably first-rate with its physical productions. Scenic designer Kelly Tighe impresses with his fisheye lens backdrop of the Punxsutawney skyline, attractively lit by longtime resident lighting designer Thomas Shorrock.
The costumes by Linda Shorrock help establish the blue-collar milieu of the town, as well as featuring an amusing giant groundhog outfit in celebration of its annual national focus. And although he is out of sight, Anthony Campisi directs a seven-piece live orchestra – a plus for the production, even if you will be humming nothing as you exit the Amaturo.
GROUNDHOG DAY, Slow Burn Theatre, Broward Center’s Amaturo Theatre, 201 SW Fifth Ave,. Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, Feb. 16. $49-$62. 954-462-0222.