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Mark Shenton’s week: It’s Groundhog Day on Broadway as British imports pile up

Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus Andy Karl in Groundhog Day at the August Wilson Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus
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I don’t need an excuse to visit New York, but last weekend I had a special reason for scheduling a four-night stay: it coincided with a late-night reunion of original cast members of the short-lived Broadway transfer of Groundhog Day. There’s something uniquely bittersweet and saddening about a musical that, though generally well-received, still failed to take the town; it was all about the timing, and in the year of Dear Evan Hansen and Come from Away, not to mention the revival of Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler, there just wasn’t the audience or the dollars to sustain it.

Yet I saw it 10 times in all – three in London at the Old Vic, then seven more in New York, including three times in its final week last July. We were only scheduled to see it twice on that trip, before returning home on the day it closed, but after seeing the Saturday matinee, we rebooked to see the final Sunday performance – and moved our flights home in order to do so. And yes, we paid for each of those visits in the final week.

But if I thought I was a fan, that was nothing compared to the 21-year-old woman I shared a table with at 54 Below: she had seen it 32 times. All around me were people able to sing along with every word – including once to prompt a cast member who dropped a line!

It’s a show that speaks profoundly to some of us. For me, it is an amazing exploration of depression: when you are depressed, every single day feels exactly like Groundhog Day – that you’re stuck in an endless loop that you can’t escape. In the show, Phil Connors finally breaks the cycle by discovering the pleasures of altruism and music. It’s a very powerful and moving message in a show that is rich with melody, laugher and heartache. And all of those were very much in evidence at this lovely reunion.

Other repeats

I also revisited three other shows I’d seen before, purely for pleasure (and to see new cast members in them). These included Bernadette Peters, taking over in Hello, Dolly!, pop star Jake Shears in Kinky Boots and the marvellous Norm Lewis, newly joining Once on this Island, and one of Broadway’s very best male voices.

Mark Shenton: Cast changes can reinvigorate a long-running theatre show

I caught an early preview of the Off-Broadway premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera, originally premiered at the National back in 2003 (after prior fringe try-outs at BAC and on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe). It has always been a subversive delight, poking fun at human foibles and proclivities. And now that we have a reality-TV president in the White House, it’s more necessary than ever. The show doesn’t open officially until February 22, so it’s too early to review. But I can say that it feels like there couldn’t be a better time to see it than now.

Jerry Springer is just one of a number of London-originated shows making their way to New York at the moment. Also last week, Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen made its New York premiere at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre with some of its original Royal Court cast (including Reece Shearsmith, Johnny Flynn and Sally Rogers); and on the way next month is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, as well as the Menier-originated revival of Stoppard’s Travesties, with Tom Hollander reprising his London performance.

Also last week, I also saw the tremendous New York cabaret debut of Scottish-born, London-based performer George Rae at 54 Below. He was an impish delight in a programme that stretched from a reprisal of his big song from Grand Hotel (in which he starred at Southwark Playhouse) to Seymour, a dream role he is yet to play in Little Shop of Horrors. Someone needs to make that dream come true – for him, and for us.

Review of the week

In the reviews-I-wished-I’d-written department, Dominic Maxwell in The Times was priceless about the Royal Court’s premiere of Simon Longman’s Gundog: “This may just be the most miserable play I have seen…. Gundog is so gloomy that it makes Long Day’s Journey Into Night look like Airplane! So grindingly grim that it makes Manchester By the Sea look like Five Guys Named Moe.”

Read The Stage’s review of Gundog

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