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Chicago by John Olson

Striking 12
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of Irving Berlin's White Christmas

Striking 12
Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees and Eric Loughlin
They are called the holidays plural after all. If it's ever seemed to you that New Year's Eve ought to have a holiday musical of its own since Christmas has so many, here's Striking 12 for your consideration. And if you've ever felt there ought to be a musical that acknowledges the pressure the holiday season puts on people to be happy and sociable when they're not entirely up to it, your wish has been granted. This 2006 Off-Broadway musical, written and originally performed by the three-piece band GrooveLily, tells the story of a man still grieving over the breakup of his engagement and wanting to just stay home and hide out on New Year's Eve.

It's a short, simple and sweet piece—running just 80 minutes or so without intermission, and performed here by a four-piece band who sing and play keyboard, violin, drums and guitars. They perform the songs, play the characters and address the audience directly as themselves. There's minimal blocking—for the most part, they stay in their concert stances while telling the story of "The Man Who's Had Enough." Sitting in his apartment while his friends are celebrating, that young man is visited by a door-to-door salesgirl selling lights especially designed to combat seasonal affective disorder. Though he, like all the others she's attempted to sell, turns her down, he's taken with her. Before leaving, she mentions the similarity of her situation to that of the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Little Match Girl," and he's moved to read it once she has left.

With humor and sensitivity, but without sentimentality, the cast tells the story of "The Little Match Girl"—about a poor peddler girl who dies of exposure on New Year's Eve. Upon reading it, the Man is moved to seek out the departed light bulb girl and buy all her light bulbs so they can give them to every sad-looking person they see. As facile as that may sound, it works because the material (by GrooveLily's Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn along with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee's bookwriter Rachel Sheinkin) mixes dry satire of young urban professionals along with its simple and irony-free retelling of the Andersen story.

The score has a rock mixed with country and folk feel, and a certain theatricality to it without sounding much like traditional show tunes. The lyrics are frequently very clever and the melodic songs include three quite lovely ballads and two big comedy numbers. They're delivered with charm by director Lara Filip's four performers. Keyboardist Eric Loughlin is the mildly depressed and angst-ridden "Man," and delivers the wry "Screwed Up People Make Great Art" (a reflection on Hans Christian Andersen's ironic stories). Dustin Valenta drums and plays a number of nerdy characters. Even so, he laments he doesn't have enough to do in the show in "Give the Drummer Some," in which he finally gets to move down stage off his drum stand for a bit. Amy Steele plays violin and her smooth, expressive voice is especially impressive on the Little Match Girl's ballads "Matches for Sale" and "Caution to the Wind," which could be a standalone number. Mallory Nees plays bass and guitar, and also shines in a comic patter number, "The Sales Pitch." As the hapless but lovable light bulb sales girl, she finds a nice balance of comedy and empathy.

The set by Sally Weiss, of wrapped holiday packages and a big clock without hands, is all that's needed. The program lists no credits for sound design or music direction, and that may explain some of the few disappointments. The lyrics are sometimes hard to hear in the amplified sound filling the tiny Heartland Studio Theatre. Better mixing and music direction might have helped make the most of this talented cast's abilities.

While the four are capable musicians, their performance lacks some of the variety and energy of the GrooveLily performance, which is available on the PS Classics label and can be heard for free on the Groovelily site.

For theatergoers seeking a holiday show less sentimental than A Christmas Carol but more uplifting than Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, BoHo's Striking 12 could be just the ticket.

Striking 12 runs through January 8, 2011 at the Heartland Studio at 7016 N Glenwood Avenue. For tickets, call Ovation Tix at 866-811-4111 or visit www.bohotheatre.com.


Photo: Brandon Dahlquist and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

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-- John Olson



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