nytheatre.com review by Eric Pliner
November 11, 2006
What's the difference between an evening of theatre and a staged concert? I'm not entirely sure, and I don't think the creators of Groovelily's Striking 12 are either. Maybe it doesn't matter; with strong musical talent, sharp visual design, and charismatic performers, Striking 12 includes plenty of pieces to construct what could be a winning evening of entertainment. Unfortunately, a flawed book by Groovelily members Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda, and Tony Award-winner Rachel Sheinkin (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) overwhelms the production with convolution, and results in performances that are more exasperating than exciting.
Groovelily (pianist Milburn, violinist Vigoda, and drummer Gene Lewin) is known for its rock-jazz-folk fusion of different musical traditions and styles. It's an unusual and compelling approach, to be sure, and perhaps their long-time fans (of which, I'm told, there are many) will be delighted by this newest incarnation. But when combined with the strains of Christmas themes, the ensuing musical result sounded to me like the cast of Rent swallowed by bell-ringing, organ-pounding, holiday standby Manheim Steamroller.
Still, this whole holiday thing is the raison d'etre for Striking 12, as the trio tells us right off the bat. The members of Groovelily spend a lot of time traveling, they explain, which means they spend a lot of time away from home. Their desire to be in one place for a while, particularly around the holidays, led to the creation of Striking 12. This is perhaps not the most compelling (or artistically-driven, anyway) motivation for creating a work of theatre, but it's not unreasonable, either. So the play's about them, then—or so it seems when they offer up this prologue; when drummer Lewin sings about being, well, a drummer; or when the actors talk about what kind of characters they want to play.
But wait! Striking 12 is a show-within-a-show. It's not about the performers, it's about characters who Milburn, Vigoda, and Lewin will embody: a lonely New York City guy sitting at home waiting for the clock to strike midnight on New Year's Eve, a pretty young woman whom he meets while she's selling strings of full-spectrum Christmas lights door-to-door, and his wild-and-crazy friend throwing a New Year's party that he decides to skip. Instead of going out with his friends, he stays home and reads Hans Christian Andersen—the story of the Little Match Girl, to be specific.
But wait again! Striking 12 is a show-within-a-show-within-a-show. Suddenly, the actors are playing characters in New York who are now playing characters from "The Little Match Girl," re-enacting the tale of the shivering child who communes with her beloved, dead grandmother by striking all of the matches that she has to sell (twelve of them, perhaps?!) and then, well, freezing to death.
The play on the words "striking twelve" makes for a clever pun, but beyond that, the conceit is frustrating. The performance skips among the actors, the characters, and the second set of characters, leaving little opportunity for any sort of character development beyond what might appear in a pat, seasonal fable. And talented though they clearly are, acting does not appear to be the strongest of the Groovelily trio's (admittedly broad) skill set.
Still, all three performers shine at different moments, and they make for an immensely likeable team. As a group, their vocal technique and facility with their respective instruments make their musical performances seem impressively simple when they are, in fact, layered and complicated. Milburn is an endearingly watchable hero, and Vigoda's winning smile and light movement are equally pleasant. Lewin holds down the rock edge of the trio's musical approach, and collectively, the group has honed its harmonies to near perfection. If that weren't enough, David Korins's single set makes excellent use of a moving, upstage scrim / curtain framing an abstract installation of strings and balls to highlight different settings, and Michael Gilliam's lighting is exquisite for both the performers and the setting.
The problem is, it isn't enough. Perhaps a weak book would be acceptable for a staged concert instead of a work of theatre, but only if the music is enjoyable, too. All the talent, cleverness, likeability, presence, and artistry (and the group and its production team really do seem to have all five, in abundance) can't make up for a dull, trite story that's poorly constructed and framed with forgettable music, no matter how well-played. With its slapped-together story (or story-within-a-story-within-a-story) and Christmas-time infomercial sound, Groovelily's Striking 12, unfortunately, strikes out.