'Striking 12': A warm fusion of fable and wit
By Peter Marks
Monday, December 7, 2009
What the singing narrators tell you in "Striking 12," an engaging concert-style entertainment, is absolutely true: "The Little Match Girl" makes a lousy subject for a musical. The salvation of this unadorned evening is the inventive way in which the storytellers work around this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, enveloping a downer of a fable in a wit-filled contemporary shell.
Performed by GrooveLily, a zesty trio whose style is a fusion of jazz, rock and show tune, "Striking 12" -- at Arena Stage in Crystal City through Sunday -- falls somewhere between cabaret act and chamber musical. The musicians, Gene Lewin (drums), Brendan Milburn (keyboard) and Valerie Vigoda (electric violin), employ no other props than their instruments to weave a piece melding a pop jocularity to the mournful sensibility of Hans Christian Andersen.
One of the sharpest numbers in the 90-minute production reveals this very connection. In "Screwed Up People Make Great Art," Lewin satirically recounts some of the pain in the life of the 19th-century writer to explain how a tormented soul might compose a story such as "The Little Match Girl," in which a destitute orphan goes out and sells matches in the cold, and then dies.
His work was about "snowmen and mermaids and magic shoes," Lewin sings. "But when his characters get what they want, there is often a rude surprise/Because Hans Christian Andersen looked at the world through really screwed-up eyes."
The attitude is "Avenue Q"-ish with a dash of Randy Newman. The show, written several years ago by Vigoda and Milburn with Rachel Sheinkin -- the Tony-winning librettist of the boisterous "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" -- is most effective when exploring the irreverent side of its nature. The distillation of solemn moments from Andersen's story, however, proves less than enthralling. The efforts to animate the little girl are built around wooden transitions; the performers are not all that skilled at sustaining the illusion of spontaneity. And when the tone wanders into the dark, so does one's attentiveness.
Still, the melodies and musicianship are of a caliber to revive the spirit even when it starts to sag. Andersen's tale is framed here by the boy-meets-salesgirl story of a wet noodle of an office worker, played by Milburn, who opts to go home on New Year's Eve rather than to a pal's party. On his front stoop appears a young woman, portrayed by Vigoda, selling special lights that are designed to mitigate a condition that causes sadness in winter. Her sales pitch prompts the man to reflect on the Little Match Girl, whose story he pulls from a pile of books. ("Striking 12" refers both to the holiday witching hour and the little girl's attempts to keep herself warm.)
The show plays by its own theatrical rulebook; its informal attitude toward such trifling matters as plot is part of its charm. One minute, for example, Milburn is in character as the lonely office worker, and the next he steps out to exuberantly praise one of Lewin's drum licks. Some of the dialogue is predictable smart-alecky cross-talk, but it also serves GrooveLily's purpose, establishing an unembarrassed sort of intimacy with the audience. It's too bad Arena can't set up tables and serve cocktails, because this is a clubby, sip-and-savor sort of show.
It also provides an intriguing counterpoint to Arena's other enjoyable seasonal offering, "The Fantasticks," now playing at the Lincoln Theatre. Like that granddaddy of the offbeat fairy-tale musical, "Striking 12" winks at the conventions of the theater and, if you temper your expectations just a bit, constructs for you a pleasing little diversion.
"Striking 12" by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin. About 90 minutes.