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Striking 12

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Put away your jingle bells, your sleigh bells, and your silver bells - the season's now all about drums, keyboards, and electric violins. Those are the instruments of choice for the members of the hard pop-theatre fusion band Groovelily, and once you've heard and seen their exciting new spin on the best time of the year, you'll never want to get dizzy any other way.

Even traditional music lovers have nothing to fear from Striking 12, the rockingly good show Groovelily has written with Rachel Sheinkin, and which just opened at the Daryl Roth Theatre. If there's a contemporary edge to every note and lyric, there's not one that doesn't gleam with the surging optimism that's always characterized the season's hymns and carols. So if the sound is eclectic and electronic, it's also - most importantly - genuine. Humbugs seeking cynicism and irony from their holiday shows won't be satisfied with what they find here.

They're probably the only ones. Otherwise, Sheinkin (who won a Tony for her book to The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and Groovelily members Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn, and Valerie Vigoda are determined to give you heart, if not necessarily the heart you expect. Striking 12 isn't one of those Dickensian riffs where a Scrooge-like recluse learns to love Christmas, and the book isn't bursting with treacly emotional affirmations. But one man does learn that love for your fellow man - or woman - can be liberating any time of year.

That man, played by Milburn, arrives home on December 31 to an answering machine full of invitations he can't bear to accept; trouble at work and a recent breakup with his fiancée aren't putting him in the celebrating mood. But when a young woman (Vigoda) stops by his apartment peddling high-power light bulbs, she sparks both his affection and his curiosity in how she relates to another light merchant of holiday lore: Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl.

The man sits down to study the story, and starts finding his own personal cheer - and mission - in imagining how Andersen's tragic events could too easily apply to the woman he now can't stop thinking about. But as Vigoda and Lewin reenact the story around him, he discovers that it relates to his own life as well, and that maybe it's time he warm himself up, too.

David Korins's set, a series of panels that slide to reveal winter-themed backdrops, and Michael Gilliam's intense lighting (which includes the obligatory strings of multicolored tree lights) really come alive in this section under Ted Sperling's twinkling, inventive direction, but the material itself never especially does. Two of the show's best songs, the sumptuous, fire-stoking "Wonderful" and the breeze-biting "Caution to the Wind," are found here, but the Match Girl's plight has not been reconceived as imaginatively or as evocatively as that of the lonely loser has been.

The songs for his world burn brighter, and with a more vividly dramatic fire. The urban-winter-wonderland opening, "Snow Song," is as hushed as early morning in the snow-covered city; the man's "Last Day of the Year" pulses with a pedantic undercurrent that characterizes his impatience with life; and "Fine Fine Fine" is a gloriously off-putting look at party small talk centering on uncomfortable subjects. The Match Girl story, more routinely musicalized, never grabs you quite the same way; even digressions, like bit-player Lewin's complaint about the rhythm man's lot ("Give the Drummer Some") or an eyebrow-raising analysis of the world's greatest creatives ("Screwed-up People Make Great Art") pack a greater punch.

Some of the Sheinkin-Milburn-Vigoda dialogue, especially when the performers are "playing" themselves, feels unnecessarily overscripted. And while Milburn, Vigoda, and Lewin turn in fine performances, don't expect characterizations of particularly notable depth: While expertly accompanying themselves and singing their stories, they don't have time for much but varying degrees of urban disaffection.

But even that's right for this kind of concert-theatre, as it leaves them one kind of expectation to smash and another to deliver wrapped with a big red bow. If the show's various ingredients at times seem oddly disparate, they've been combined into a show as smooth and gently intoxicating as a mug of hot buttered rum.

With luck, this show will become as much of a holiday presence as that drink and all the ubiquitous songs. And who knows, maybe some day "Snow Song" and "Wonderful" will be standards themselves. Giving everything else Sheinkin and Groovelily have accomplished in Striking 12, that wouldn't surprise me - or upset me - in the least.

Striking 12
Through December 31
Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street at 20 Union Square East, between 15th and 16th Streets
Running Time: 85 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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