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Striking 6 

An engaging piece of musical theater gives up halfway through

Wednesday, Jan 5 2005
"Striking 12 is a cross between a GrooveLily concert and a holiday fairy tale," explains Brendan Milburn, keyboardist and one-third of GrooveLily, the New York alternapop trio that wants to make a yearly tradition of settling in Palo Alto (or somewhere) for December and January. The holiday in question isn't Christmas or Hanukkah or Ramadan or Eid, though, but New Year's Eve: an uncontroversial choice for a safe and cheery show.

When I heard about GrooveLily's musical update of Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl," I thought of Shockheaded Peter, the brilliant and strange rock opera mounted at ACT a few years ago by a British band called the Tiger Lillies. That show mined Heinrich Hoffman's book of mock-cautionary tales (about Shockheaded Peter, who never cut his hair, and Pauline, the incautious girl who burned herself to a crisp with kitchen matches). It wasn't for kids, exactly, but it revived the nightmare dreaminess of childhood.

Striking 12 is for kids, or at least teenagers. The members of GrooveLily not only retell "The Little Match Girl" but also draw careful, conscious parallels for the audience between the Andersen story and their own clever update. In the older story a poor girl who sells matches for a living dies after striking the last of her stock for a glimpse -- on a dark, frozen New Year's Eve -- of her dying grandmother. The GrooveLily version deals with a New York man (called Grumpy Guy), sulking after being recently dumped by his fiancee, who opens the door on New Year's Eve to a young woman selling not matches but strings of full-spectrum holiday lights to ward off seasonal affective disorder. "All you have to do," she says brightly, "is stare at them for half an hour a day, and you'll find that your mood will improve!"

Grumpy Guy's not interested. The girl goes away. He avoids a party thrown by his friend and reads up on Hans Christian Andersen. And so "The Little Match Girl" gets dragged sideways into a rock musical -- and songs about her make up the vital heart of Striking 12.

GrooveLily consists of a drummer (Gene Lewin), a keyboardist (Milburn), and a frontwoman named Valerie Vigoda who plays the six-string electric violin. Together their sound is jerky, cheerful pop, expertly performed and sometimes tricky and verbal, like the tunes of They Might Be Giants. Vigoda also has a clear thing for Shawn Colvin -- the yearning vocals, the sweet high tone. Some songs, like "There's Gotta Be Somewhere Better," feel overearnest; you sense that the band wants to cut loose with something angrier and more sophisticated. "Everything's Fine," about phony holiday socializing, begins to rock; and then "Caution to the Wind," about the Match Girl's death, dredges (at last!) satisfying depths of dissonance and grief.

Vigoda has a quirky stage presence. Her violins look like Flying V guitars; they rest on or around her shoulders and free up her chin to sing. She's also a deadpan actor; she plays the Little Light-Bulb Girl with a charming, offhanded chirpiness. Milburn, her husband, strains to put energy into his feckless Grumpy Guy role, but Lewin keeps the audience amiably off-balance from behind his drum set with a few moments of comic relief. "I didn't even wanna do 'Little Match Girl' in the first place," he snaps. "I wanted to do 'Little Drummer Boy.'" And after a while GrooveLily does play "Little Drummer Boy," ending Act 1 in a bombardment of drums and keening, ecstatic violin.

The only trouble with Striking 12 is that it seems half thought out, not fully developed by Vigoda and Milburn and their writing collaborator, Rachel Sheinkin. The rock opera ends at intermission, and the second act becomes (as Milburn calls it) a sort of DVD featurette, offering band member bios and explaining how Striking 12 came to be. All this self-consciousness feels trendy more than refreshing, and the result is to reduce some good songs and an interesting idea to a GrooveLily promotional vehicle. Vigoda even admits that musical theater is steady work for a rock band used to gigging around -- it keeps everybody in one place for the holidays. But it should do a little more.

And now a brief foray into the personal: After this issue of the Weekly, I will not stay in one place -- I'm moving to Berlin. The seven years of writing this column have been terrific fun, thanks to the sheer liveliness and variety of local theater and to the spirit of free thought provided by this paper (the only one in town not committed to a single political outlook or a family-newspaper tone). But it's time to move on, even if I'll need a string of full-spectrum lights to survive the winter. Guten Rutsch ins neue Jahr -- er, I mean, Happy New Year.


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