Dick Clark’s torpid TV show; off-key renderings of “Auld Lang Syne”; several hundred thousand screaming, gibbering idiots intoxicated up to their retinas in Times Square—these are three reasons New Year’s Eve is maybe the most dreaded holiday on the calendar. For Brendan Milburn, who plays The Man Who’s Had Enough in Striking 12 (co-written with his fellow musicians in the funk-folk band GrooveLily), all that heightened cheer and cheesy hoopla is cause enough to stay home, open a cold one and read a book.
Normally, of course, you’d never refer to an actor having the feelings associated with his character—such is the essence of theater. But Milburn, who shares writing credit for Striking 12 with electric violinist/vocalist Valerie Vigoda (also his wife) and Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony for the book of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, tells us from the start that the story isn’t about a character in the usual sense: The band, tired of touring, wanted to write a “holiday show for people who don’t like holiday shows.” So The Man, if you will, is an Everyman that anyone who gets blue or queasy around the holidays can relate to—a kind of non-character character befitting a non-musical-theater musical.
Directed by Ted Sperling, Striking 12 is presented as a concert musical, yet whereas one often thinks of concert musicals as something that could be fully mountable—given money and time and resources—you’d never produce this full-out even if you could. (And how could you top the inexplicably atomic-looking set by David Korins?)
As noted, the music is by two of the three members of GrooveLily, which fuses elements of classical music with musical theater, jazz and rock into a smart, catchy jive strong enough to support some narrative. (The third member is master drummer Gene Lewin.) On the left is Vigoda, electric violin attached to her neck, purple bustier hugging her midsection, a choir-angel voice. On the right is handsome Milburn, who is never far from his keyboard; Lewin sits in a center island, hemmed in by drums. There’s minor staging—like Vigoda barging across the front row at one point—but it’s almost entirely the songs conveying action. It wouldn’t be so strange if it were clear what story they wanted to tell—if it’s about a man’s unwillingness to wear a lampshade on his head on New Year’s Eve, all right, I’m down with that.
But that idea peters out quickly, leaving The Man to read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” … aloud.
Except, that is, when the non-character character that Vigoda plays—a door-to-door purveyor of full-spectrum light bulbs that alleviate Seasonal Affective Disorder—knocks on The Man’s door, makes her pitch, gets rebuffed and moves on. Could there be a … parallel? Why, yes! And so you spend most of the 85-minute show aware that The Man will reach the tragic ending of Andersen’s story, remember the light-bulb girl, head out to find her (he does) and take appropriately endearing action so her fate will be, er, brighter than the dead match girl’s.
There are genuinely terrific songs to enjoy throughout that are insightful, communicative and always exquisitely well-sung. You’ll be tantalized by the sense of yearning in the first two numbers, “Snow Song” and “Last Day of the Year”; the neat rhyming of “hoi polloi” and “Lay-Z-Boy”; and the dazzlingly knowing “Screwed-Up People Make Great Art,” which should be on the radio right now.
But as winning as the music and performances are, there’s something too determinedly vanilla about the whole enterprise. And while I know that nobody wants a Christmas tragedy, if Andersen can have an edge—remember, the little match girl dies—why not GrooveLily?
Through Dec. 31. Daryl Roth Theater, 101 E. 15th St. (at 4th Ave.), 212-239-6200; $35-75.
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