After an acclaimed stint at Ars Nova last winter, the band GrooveLily hits New York again with its sensational seasonal offering Striking 12, a contemporary retelling of "The Little Match Girl" set to a bewitching score and performed by three multitalented performers. This year, they have set up shop in the cavernous Daryl Roth Theater, but Ted Sperling's inspired and careful direction has both preserved and enhanced the magic and intimacy of this little-show-that-could. In truth, it would be a herculean task to dim the lights on any of these three actor-musicians. On electric violin, Valerie Vigoda is vivacious and captivating as she portrays the Match Girl and her contemporary alter ego—an eccentric woman hawking strings of light bulbs on New Year's Eve. And behind the keyboard, her husband and collaborator, Brendan Milburn, is still lovably cranky as the grumpy guy who refuses to go out and celebrate with his friends.
Gene Lewin, the third band member and drummer extraordinaire, fills out the show in a variety of smaller roles, and his performance has grown and deepened over the year. Dryly sarcastic and refreshingly witty, Lewin seems even more comfortable as the backbone—and beat—of Striking 12. (He also still gets his trademark tour de force number, "Give the Drummer Some," where he steals the spotlight to show off his formidable percussive prowess.)
The rest of the score is virtually intact, with a few minor changes that include the addition of the soulful "Red and Green (And I'm Feeling Blue)," the rhapsodic "Wonderful," and the air-tight harmonies of "Picture This." The new music blends seamlessly into the rest of the material, which reflects GrooveLily's signature palette of pop, rock, folk, jazz, and blues. This is a group that refuses to be pigeonholed, and its members continue to create an unmistakable, boundless sound that is all their own.
Together with designers David Korins (set), Jennifer Caprio (costumes), Michael Gilliam (lighting), and Robert J. Killenberger (sound), Sperling has nestled Striking 12 comfortably into this larger space. If the costumes are more stylish (and coordinated) and the wacky props look less spontaneously scrounged up, Gilliam's dynamic lighting has only heightened the dramatic tension. Most notably, he throws Vigoda's shadow against the back wall to create a haunting effect during her aggressive and athletic performance of the powerful "Can't Go Home." Gilliam has also subdivided the enormous back wall into panels of color and light, which constantly shift to reveal a matrix of small sparkly orbs, adding dimension while pivoting with the story.
Even with such impressive production values, the strength of Striking 12 still lies in the remarkable synergy of musicianship, acting, and attitude created by Vigoda, Milburn, and Lewin. Vigoda and Milburn co-wrote the show with Tony Award-winner Rachel Sheinkin, and although this story doesn't attempt to move mountains, it does aspire to reach the heart with its exploration of urban isolation and its detrimental effects. Without being preachy, the performers unearth cheer from malaise—a freshly modern holiday message.
Vigoda and Milburn received the 2006 Jonathan Larson Award for their musical theater writing, and Striking 12 continues to advance Larson's intrepid, renegade spirit. They're already at work on a new concert-musical, Wheelhouse, about their experiences in a used RV, and one can only hope they will continue to explore, reinvent, and electrify the genre for years and New Years to come.