Striking 12 is a striking exception to the mandatory Christmas sappiness occupying most entertainment venues this time of year. It’s set at holiday time, but the holiday in question is New Year’s Eve, not Christmas. It’s emotional without drooping into sentimentality. It features tender and funny original music, a refreshing change from the seasonal songs you’ve just heard for the ten millionth time. Free Range Humans’ production at the BlackRock Center for the Arts in Germantown is a delight from start to finish.
Created by the trio GrooveLily (music, lyrics, and book credited to Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda, and Rachel Sheinkin), the musical takes off from the discontent of The Man Who’s Had Enough (tenor Alan Naylor), spending his December 31 working late at his soul-deadening job (“Last Day of the Year”). Seeking refuge from the enforced gaiety and compulsory cheer of the occasion, he resolves to have a quiet, mildly depressed, night at home.
The members of the ensemble play instruments as well as sing. Violinist/soprano Robin Weiner, who sets the wistful tone of the piece with the lovely “Snow Song,” turns up at The Man’s apartment haplessly selling lights to help cope with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Her visit brings to The Man’s mind Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story, The Little Match Girl, which he then begins to read in preference to watching whatever his TV remote can find (including a wonderful parody of a Law and Order rerun).
As The Man reads the story aloud, assisted by narrator/keyboardist Paige Austin Rammelkamp, Weiner assumes the persona of the Little Match Girl herself, trying vainly to sell her matches (“Wonderful” and “Lights Were Shining from Every Window”) while the party crowd ignores her and busies itself, striving to have the fun the occasion demands (“Say What,” led by sound effects man Michael Reid). For The Man and the Little Match Girl, there is only loneliness and cold (the duet “Can’t Go Home”).
As in the Andersen story, the Little Match Girl strikes one match after another, basking briefly in the fantasy of something warm and beautiful and welcoming (the touching “Visions in the Matchlight”). Striking 12 then takes a comic break, as the supporting musicians, led by cellist Natalie Spehar and percussionist Kevin Uleck, revolt against the frustrations of their small parts (“Give the Drummer Some”). It’s very funny, and anyone chronically cast in character roles can relate, but it’s an interruption in the flow of the narrative that’s the show’s thinnest moment.
Back in frigid Denmark, the Little Match Girl has her final desperately brave vision, of her grandmother, the one person who has loved her (“Caution to the Wind”), before the Andersen story comes to its unhappily hypothermic conclusion. Notwithstanding a friend’s (Reid) glibly hilarious explanation of how Andersen’s oddness led to his memorable stories (“Screwed Up People Make Great Art”), The Man rebels. “It’s Not All Right,” he sings, impelling him to move out into the world and seek hope and connection with others in the coming year.
The production is minimalist: a tree of LED lights and a sofa are the main movable elements on an otherwise bare stage, with the musicians (including guitarist Lauren Farnell, who also participates in the narration) arranged, band-style, along the white backdrop. The production’s greatest strength comes from the first-rate, eclectic pop/rock/jazz/show tune score and its presentation, particularly by the lead performers. Both Weiner, with her clear lyric soprano sound, and Naylor, with a supple affinity for both lyric and more dramatic vocal material, do the score proud. Under the music direction of Marci Shegogue, the entire ensemble provides a varied and seamless musical environment.
Director Elizabeth Lucas shapes the action simply and effectively, moving performers and their instruments smoothly and informally about as the show unfolds. The Free Range Humans version, which expands the cast from the original trio to seven performers, allows Lucas to present the show more as a chamber musical than as a concert, enhancing its theatrical impact. Her work with the performers captures the humorous, melancholy, and hopeful elements of the story. The show’s emotional tone is adult: this is not a show aimed at a children’s audience.
Despite a well-reviewed off-Broadway run in 2006 and a number of regional productions since (including one under the auspices of Arena Stage in 2009), Striking 12 is not a household name in the crowded world of holiday-themed shows. It’s always rewarding to see an unfamiliar work for the first time, performed at a consistently high level, and Striking 12 plentifully provides that satisfaction.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Lighting Designer and Technical Director, Tj Lukacsina; Sound Designer, Brent Tomchik.