Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Striking 12 is not exactly a new show. It was developed at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto, where it first saw light of day in 2004. It has been seen around these parts before, though not by me and not staged by the wizards at Minneapolis Musical Theatre who can make even a dumb show like Toxic Avenger into a happy occasion and can polish up an overlooked piece like last season's Hands on a Hardbody and reveal it as an underrated gem. With Striking 12, they have terrific material, have assembled a first-rate cast of fresh-faced performers, and feature co-direction by Kari Steinbach and Joe Hendren with seamless, nonstop movement on the intimate thrust stage at Gremlin Theatre.
The show is whimsical, unspooled by a revolving corps of narrator/ensemble members. It begins on New Year's Eve; it could be this year, nothing about the show feels dated since its 2004 launch. Everyone is primed for a night of blowing the lid off the old year and soaking up the promise of total fulfillment the new year will deliver. Well, everyone except one man introduced to us as a Man Who's Had Enough. The Man works late at his soulless job on New Year's Eve, avoiding the stampede to the parties. The truth is, the whole party scene leaves him cold. He is also chilled by a recent break-up, and all the well-meant offers of mindless diversions and fresh relationship fodder only make it worse.
At home he despairs of finding something to pass the time in solitude, brooding over the delusions of his peers who believe that merely passing the stroke of midnight from one year to the next can effect changes in their lives, let alone the world writ large. Then, out of the blue, a young woman appears, selling Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lights door to door and promising a major mood boost to those who suffer from the dearth of sunlight in the winter. The Man declines to purchase the lights but is taken by the charming vendor. He likens her to the little match girl in the story by Hans Christian Andersen–both out in the frigid night, trying without success to sell light, one in the form of matches, the other SAD bulbs–and then decides to read the story that will be his New Year's Eve. From this point on, the show pivots back and forth between contemporary urban America and eighteenth-century Denmark. When The Man learns how "The Little Match Girl" ends, he has an epiphany that alters the course of this New Year's Eve, and perhaps all those to come.
Striking 12 is the creation of an eccentric band named GrooveLily, with band members Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda writing the music and lyrics, and playwright Rachel Sheinkin (Tony Award winner for the book of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) collaborating with them on its book. The score is mainly in a folk-rock vein, altogether pleasing with enough range for its songs to be distinctive, with the ability to convey yearning in one scene, and rocking abandon in another. The book is gentle, warm hearted, and witty, poking fun aplenty at social norms but without ever sounding a mean note.
With the exception of Nick Manthe, who is terrific as The Man, the cast functions very much as an ensemble, fluidly shifting roles in the course of the show. A couple stand out: Rachael Furgiuele as the SAD Light Seller and Madeline Kadlec as the Little Match Girl, both creating moving portraits of the two girls treading parallel paths a couple centuries apart, and both have lovely voices. Kadlec has two especially good songs, "Wonderful," and "Caution to the Wind," and delivers beautiful renditions of both. Furgiuele shines in a musical sales pitch for her SAD lights, which becomes an extremely clever patter duet with Manthe. Manthe impresses early in the show with "Green and Red" and continues to shine throughout, both in his strong vocals and ability to humanize the cynical, disaffected Man.
Kyle Camay has a turn as Jack, a party-loving bro, making a great splash with the pop-rock "Screwed Up People Make Great Art." Three of the six on-stage musicians (deftly led by keyboardist and music director Kean Orbison Van Heel) take on roles in the play as well, including Kadlec, who plays bass when she isn't and also while she is playing the Little Match Girl. Drummer Paul David Stanko steps out in a comical turn with "Give the Drummer Some," which has nothing to do with the narrative but is awfully good fun.
Mandi Johnson designed costumes that suit each cast member to a tee. Kurt Jung's lighting is extremely effective, creating spaces and atmospheres around Dennis Joslyn's minimal scenery, an assortment of various sized crates scattered around the stage, which can become seats or platforms as needed. Antonia Perez devised the choreography, which is in the vein of wild-abandoned dancing by partygoers who don't care what they look like to onlookers, and organized movement to build various formations of the ensemble members. It is in perfect keeping with the rest of the production, which knows that it is not a big, full, elaborate musical, but a simple, gentle tale being told by a good-hearted crew and counting on its audience to meet their efforts with imagination.
Striking 12 is not a large or impressive musical; there are no big production numbers, no dazzling lighting effects or applause-inducing set pieces, no costumes that cost as much to build as a Subaru. But everything about his show made me feel good. Its very premise, that there is a place between partying into oblivion and being locked up in self-imposed isolation, a place where meaningful, authentic connections can happen between people of good will warms my heart. The score is fresh and engaging, the cast does wonderful work while seemingly having the time of their lives. It radiates joy and optimism. I would happily see it again, and then again.
Striking 12, a Minneapolis Musical Theatre production, runs through December 18, 2022, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Premier: $40.00, students and seniors (65 and up) - $33.00; General: $30.00, students and seniors (65 and up) - $23.00; Economy - $20.00. For tickets and information, please visit aboutmmt.org or call 612-440-6681.
Book: Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda; Music & Lyrics: Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda; Co-Directors: Kari Steinbach and Joe Hendren; Music Director: Jean Orbison Van Heel), Choreographer: Antonia Perez; Scenic Design: Dennis Joslyn; Costume Design: Mandi Johnson; Sound Design: Aaron Newman; Lighting Design: Kurt Jung; Audio Design: Forest Godfrey; Prop Design: Joe Hendren; Stage Manager: Toni Solie.
Cast: Abigail Chagolla (Narrator/ensemble), Kyle Camay (Jack/ensemble), Rachael Furgiuele (SAD Light Seller/ensemble), Madeline Kadlec (Little Match Girl/bass/ensemble/), Umar Malik (Drummer/ensemble), Nick Manthe (The Man), Charlie Morgan (Narrator/ensemble), Jean Orbison Van Heel (Keyboard), Antonia Perez (Narrator/ensemble), Laura Potratz (Violin/ensemble), Josh Shaffer (Guitar), Paul David Stanko (Drummer/ensemble).