Thursday, December 16, 2010

Home(less) for the holidays

The talented performers of Striking 12 hardly strike out, but . . .

I'm of two minds about Striking 12, the musical update of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" now playing at SpeakEasy Stage.  On the one hand this little show marks an intriguing, yet natural, step for SpeakEasy from the stage to the club (above), and as it glitters with confident polish (like so many of this company's productions), on the surface it seems to be just what it wants to be: a smooth and smart piece of alternative holiday entertainment.
But on the other hand, that's everything it shouldn't be.  For this is a version of "The Little Match Girl," one of the most tragic of Andersen's fables, in which an innocent little girl freezes to death on New Year's Eve, in the snowy gutter of a city street, because she can't sell any matches - and because if she returns home without money in her pocket, she knows her father will beat her mercilessly.  Utterly calm in its attitude toward the self-absorbed partiers who ignore the barefoot child in the snow, the tale even features one of Andersen's most fiendishly heart-rending devices: the girl, delusional from cold, starts to strike her matches because in their light she imagines she sees the soul of her departed grandmother; only as the vision grows warmer and closer, the matches run out one by one, and we know she is step by barefoot step growing closer to her own frozen destruction.

To be honest, you can be horrified by this manipulative little tale in more ways than one; but however you may feel about its intense pathos, it's hard to square its mood with the lightly ironic modes of adult-contemporary rock.  But that's just what authors Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda (of the pop trio GrooveLily) and Rachel Sheinkin (of Putnam County fame) have tried to do; they've actually attempted to build a smooth holiday show of easy listening around the famous story of a little girl who freezes to death.

I know.  It's just too weird for words.  What's weirder still is that the production almost succeeds; for much of its length, you half-buy Striking 12, because the lyrics of the various numbers are so witty and up-to-the-minute, and you keep thinking the authors may just be clever enough to swing an ending that pulls together the quirky humor of their best material with the gonzo horror of Andersen's.

But it turns out they can't.  Striking 12 basically ends with a friendly shrug along the lines of "Whoa, dude, too bad about that little match girl, huh.  That just wasn't right!"  Uh-huh.  The hero of the show - who's been in a lonely funk on New Year's Eve (which drove him, oddly enough, to pick up a volume of fairy tales) - simply decides, after pondering the story, to hook up with the girl who dropped by to sell him "Seasonal Affective Disorder" lights (which are kind of like matches, get it?).  And then, much like some bad Hollywood romcom, Striking 12 fades out with the promise of romance somehow subbing for actual social engagement.

Ugh.  Somewhere in heaven, you know the Little Match Girl is feeling burnt.

And alas, the music, though well-crafted, is "funky" yet undistinguished, and so confidently glossy it makes you feel as if you were trapped in one of those dreadful annual WGBH fundraisers - think "Celtic Woman Does Copenhagen," where the beaming hosts keep reminding you they're not turning this crap off until you send in all your money.

Still, there are those witty lyrics to consider.  I'm guessing Sheinkin's behind a lot of them, and they do accurately chart the anomie of the millennial-yuppie class - you know, the guys who "fix your printer" at the office, then go home to brood and watch Law & Order (the L&O "Christmas special" imagined here is a scream, with lines like "Mommy, why is Santa bleeding from the head?").  There are traces of deeper feeling in the script, I admit; Striking 12 gets at the sense of emotional ambivalence that New Year's revelry is designed to hide - time is passing, and everyone's older but not much wiser.  Our hero has just gone through a rocky break-up, in fact - so when he sings "Everything's red and green, but I'm feeling blue," and wonders aloud "What is there to celebrate?" we have to agree, "Not all that much."

The only problem is that his problems can't hold a candle to the Little Match Girl's, and the musical can't really get over that enormous thematic hump - thus the show inevitably falls into precisely the same empty optimism it cleverly skewers for its first two-thirds. The script reaches its weirdest moment when pondering its own conceptual dilemma in an admittedly funny tune about how "screwed-up people make great art" - which somehow operates as unconscious self-critique.  Yes, Hans Christian Andersen was a weirdo - that doesn't mean the cruel injustices he wrote about didn't (and don't) exist, I'm afraid. Still, it's true that much (though hardly all) great art has been produced by emotional and psychological freaks of one type or other.  Which I guess is why, the creators of Striking 12 seem to be hinting, their musical can't succeed artistically - they're just too together to make great art (and they know it).  If self-awareness were the highest artistic virtue, I guess Striking 12 would count as Shakespeare.

Still, as I said, there are plenty of entertaining moments on the journey toward this bummer of a happy ending.  The show requires a trio of triple threats - its performers have to sing, act, and play instruments, often simultaneously - but the talented José Delgado, Zachary Hardy, and Erikka Walsh pull off this hat trick easily, perhaps almost too smoothly, before a striking set of projections by Seághan McKay. First-time director Scott Sinclair - SpeakEasy's new marketing associate - directs well enough, although in the way, I'm afraid, that you'd imagine a marketing associate would: cleverly, but without a sense of the full quirkiness of the material (several moments I think should read as more Putnam-County-flaky than they do here). There's no weak link in this ensemble, but I'm guessing drummer Zachary Hardy comes closest to the emotional profile of GrooveLily - ironic, a little goofy, and with a healthy sense of self-parody.  He's the kind of guy who, considering he's hardly the focus of "The Little Match Girl," wants to know why the trio can't switch to "The Little Drummer Boy" instead.  When they finally do launch into those rum-pa-pum-pums, you laugh out loud - but are also aware somewhere that at least in "The Little Drummer Boy," form and content are beautifully in synch. And nobody freezes to death.

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