“The Hippest Holiday Show in Recent Memory!”
Put away your jingle bells, your sleigh bells, and your silver bells — the season's now all about drums, keyboards, cellos and electric violins. Those are the instruments of choice for the members of the hard pop-theatre fusion band now performing in Chance Theater’s new holiday hit “Striking 12” through December 19th on the Cripe Stage, and once you've heard and seen their exciting new spin on the best time of the year, you'll toss those sleigh bells right into the fireplace.
But be warned: This isn't one of those Dickensian riffs where a Scrooge-like recluse learns to love Christmas, and the show isn't bursting with treacly emotional affirmations or even airs of mandatory gaiety. “Striking 12” is the acclaimed “concert-with-a-story, the-band-is-the-actors” musical event created by Tony Award-winning writer Rachel Sheinkin (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) back in 2002 for the theatrical power trio GrooveLily.
The group, consisting of Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda and Gene Lewin, had been touring endlessly and had asked Sheinkin to come up with a holiday show to give them a break. So, the effortlessly witty Sheinkin came up with an easy-going spin on Andersen’s seven-paragraph-long children’s story, called “The Little Match Girl.” I’m sure you’ve heard of it…Disney made a movie out of it four years later.
The cast, here, which features actor/band members Allen Everman (Dir: "Ordinary Days;" “Parade;” keyboard/vocals); Jacklyn Uweh (Tour: “The Second City;” vocals); the post-nasal drip guy - virtuoso Music Director Lex Leigh (“Fun Home;” electric violin/keyboard/vocals); the very talented Jennifer Richardson (“Fun Home;” cello/vocals) in a variety of characters; and, the exceptionally fun Laura Leo Kelly (“Clue! Live,” drums), also in various roles, crosses the boundaries laid down by typical rock, folk, jazz and pop. With intelligent, original songs and no shortage of wit, the group blends lush musical textures with soaring vocals to create a new alternative music genre all their own.
In the end, Sheinkin’s Off-Broadway holiday musical is an unforgettable urban fable, a unique hybrid of musical theatre and live concert, mixing dry satire of young inner-city professionals in the retelling of the 1845 Andersen story. The show has since become an exception to the mandatory Christmas sappiness occupying most entertainment venues at this time of year.
And yes, there is a moral, too. One man does learn that love for your fellow man — or woman as the case may be — can be entirely liberating at ANY time of the year.
That man, perfectly inhabited by Allen Everman, who we will call simply, The Man That’s Had Enough, arrives home on December 31st to an answering machine full of invitations he can't bear to accept. Overtime at work and a recent breakup with his fiancée aren't putting him in the celebrating mood either. Allen has been disguising sadness behind a wall of grumpiness.
Vowing to avoid all attempts at good cheer — and thereby the desolation of disappointment — he ignores all those last-minute invitations left on his machine. “I won’t be going out on the town,” he sings, “Cause my angst is up and my battery’s run down.”
You can hear his regrets about literally everything in "Last Day of the Year," pulsating strongly with a pedantic undercurrent of his impatience with life, smarting over his love affair gone sour, worrying he may lose his job. (Actually the song is quite impressive: All done in 7/4 time no less. Do you realize how hard that is to do?) The last thing he wants to do is to go out and celebrate, pretending to have fun.
But when a slightly quirky but effervescent young woman stops by his apartment peddling “full-spectrum holiday light bulbs” to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (“The Sales Pitch”), the cheery cherub 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.”
After sending her away into the cold, he begins to find 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.
He rereads that touching if gloomy tale, which immediately springs to life a song (“Matches for Sale”) by the Little Match Girl. Suddenly, his world begins to burn a little brighter, and with a more vividly dramatic fire.
Brilliantly directed by LA Stage Alliance Ovation Nominee Kari Hayter (“Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson;” “Parade”), the score features wondrous bits such as "Fine, Fine, Fine," a gloriously off-putting look at party small talk centering on uncomfortable subjects, "Give the Drummer Some," Laura Leo Kelly’s complaint about the rhythm man's lot, and "Screwed-Up People Make Great Art," an eyebrow-raising analysis of the world's greatest creatives.
Masako Tobaru’s series of projection panels that reveal analogous graphics and winter-themed backdrops really come alive under Director Hayter's twinkling, inventive direction. The urban-winter-wonderland opening, "Snow Song," which is as hushed as early morning in the snow-covered city, makes an initial impact. Two of the show's best songs, the sumptuous, fire-stoking "Wonderful" and the breeze-biting "Caution to the Wind," bring empathy from the audience, with the Match Girl's plight reconceived as imaginatively as that of the lonely loser.
The sheer effort and command of the stage by all five performers make for a breezy and heartfelt 90-minute show sprinkled with an equal mixture of cynicism and hope. Plus, those spot-on vocals and utterly note perfect numbers are simply extraordinary.
So, if you are tired of all those sweet, cute Christmas shows featuring those old familiar carols, come take a hip trip with the acclaimed indie pop-rock show, “Striking 12,” at Chance Theater, a festive tale that will ignite the holiday spirit and illuminate the coming season with an electrifying, rockin' performance that cannot be matched.
Wait! Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we crack open those Champagne bottles just yet, we still haven't even made it to Christmas with all that prerequisite gift swapping, those family squabbles and party scenes. Then, and only then, can the festive rites to welcome in the new year be endured...and recovered from. Pass the party hats please.
Chance Theater’s STRIKING 12 by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda; Performing November 26th through December 19th. Directed by Kari Hayter; Asst. Directed by Meghan Pender; Music Direction by Lex Leigh; Production Design by Masako Tobaru; Asst. Sound Design by Maddi Deckard; Costumes by Jojo Siu; Projection Design by James Tran; Stage Managed by Cynthia C. Espinoza.
Presented by Executive Producers Linda & Tod White; Associate Producers Sophie & Larry Cripe, Rachelle Menaker & Eddie Schuller and Laurie Smits Staude; Season Producers Bette & Wylie Aitken; Associate Season Producers The Family of Mary Kay Fyda-Mar. For tickets, call (888)455-4212 or visit https://chancetheater.com/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photos by Doug Catiller and Tanya Catiller, True Image Studio