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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Striking 12 is a
Groovy Holiday Musical Production

Also see Richard's reviews of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Striking 12
Gene Lewin, Valerie Vigoda,
and Brendan Milburn

TheatreWorks continues its commitment to developing new works by presenting the hip holiday musical Striking 12, starring GrooveLily, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. This trio is one of the hottest young alternative rock bands in the country, combining classical, rock, folk, jazz and pop influences in their original song styling. Group member Valerie Vigoda is absolutely phenomenal on a six-string electric violin with two lower strings that takes it down into cello range, and she says “we are smart pop, kind of like Bruce Hornsby meets Steely Dan and Paula Cole.” Her voice is sweet and commanding with a great warmth and appealing stage presence.

GrooveLily's other two members are no slouches either when it comes to cool, pop rock. Mesmerizing Brendan Milburn (Valerie’s husband) is a wiz with the keyboard where he summons a wide array of sounds. He has a smooth as velvet, melodic voice. Gene Lewin on drums is an unaffected, regular guy with an entertaining singing style and a certain Hoagy Carmichael way about his voice. Even with the intricacies of the group, GrooveLily is easily reachable. The lyrics are not silly rock lyrics one often hears but clever words with catchy hooks and riffs. Many reach powerhouse climaxes, especially in songs like ”Snow Song,” “Visions in the Matchlight” and “Screwed Up People Make Great Art.”

Striking 12 was first performed at the Prince Theatre in Philadelphia in 2002 where it was acclaimed by the critics as excellent entertainment that doesn’t fit into any pre-existing niche. Last year, the trio was a sensation at San Diego's Cassius Carter Center Stage. The LA Times said “in the quest for an ideal holiday entertainment for adults, Striking 12 strikes gold.” This marks the third appearance for the group in the retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale of “The Little Match Girl.”

The first act is about a grumpy guy, played by Milburn, who doesn’t want to go out on New Year's Eve. Vigoda plays a woman who goes door to door selling light bulbs to combat “seasonal affective disorders” (SAD). Milburn slams the door in her face after she gives him a sales pitch in a song that last 62 seconds. Milburn is reminded of Andersen’s tale of “The Little Match Girl.” Wouldn’t you know it, he has the book of Andersen's tales near at hand.

With nothing better to do on this night, he brings out the book and begins to read the tragic story of the poor little girl in the snow. The story is narrated in song (“Can’t Go Home”) while Vigoda, with her magic violin, plays the match girl. Occasionally, Lewin chimes in, wishing they would have done “Little Drummer Boy” instead. He gives out with a great song, “Give the Drummer Some,” and tears those drums apart in a burst of fantastic Gene Krupa like drumming. Lewin gets his due when the first act ends with a rousing arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

The second act is a concert set, giving the band members a chance to play some of the music from their prior albums. Vigoda explains how the band got started in 1995 and how they have played in practically every city and town in this country. In 2002 they did 150 shows in almost the same amount of cities, traveling by RV and also working on the “Match Girl” gig. Milburn comes out with a great song about traveling in the RV from town to town, naming practically every town in which they appeared.

GrooveLily breaks that fourth wall and interacts with audience. You get the feeling that these are real live people and not freakish characters. They immediately create a close intimacy that is wondrous and engaging. Even the old folks, who are not use to this kind of music, will get a charge just by watching this talented group. It is a pleasure that they are transferring to theatre since this is where they belong. I give great kudos to director Ted Sperling and Rachel Sheinkin as co-author of the show for doing a bang-up job on this two hour one intermission production.

Striking 12 is a work in progress and much as changed since it was developed during the TheatreWorks New Works Initiative in 2003. They will continue to work on the piece as it moves to its next gig. The Striking 12 cast recording is available through the web at PSClassics.com.

Striking 12 plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto through January 2nd. The public may call 650-903-6000 for tickets and information or visit www.theatreworks.org . TheatreWorks' next production will be Ken Ludwig’s farce, Shakespeare in Hollywood, which opens on January 22 with previews on January 19, 20 and 21.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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