Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda
in Striking 12
(© Joan Marcus)
Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda
in Striking 12
(© Joan Marcus)
The first thing to be grateful for with the delightful musical Striking 12 is that the trio of onstage participants who call themselves Groovelily found each other and partnered up. Jimmy Stewartish Brendan Milburn is a keyboardist, songwriter, and off-hand actor with no end of charm to draw on. Valerie Vigoda of the trim figure and shiny auburn hair also has a songwriting flair, emotes gracefully, and plays the meanest rock violin you'd ever hope to cheer. Gene Lewis brings crispness and pizzazz to his drumming and looks as if he'd have fit in with the Three Stooges if they'd ever needed a fourth. Deft singers all, their harmonies sound like the joyful noise a choir of ultra-hip angels would make.

As they relate when Striking 12 gets underway, the talented threesome decided to take a break from constantly touring by composing a holiday show they could plop in one place for a while. Joined in the writing by effortlessly witty Rachel Sheinkin, who won a Tony Award for the book to the 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, they fiddled around and came up with an easy-going spin on Hans Christian Andersen's seven-paragraph-long children's story, The Little Match Girl. The sunny result, directed by Ted Sperling, keeps a smile on your face from start to finish. Every so often, you even give out a Santa Claus-resounding belly laugh.

The song-sprinkled tale that Groovelily tells concerns a character identified as "The Man Who'd Had Enough" (played by Milburn) who's decided to spend New Year's Eve alone. His self-imposed isolation is interrupted by a woman selling what she calls "special full-spectrum holiday light bulbs." Although the man spurns the lady's offer, he's reminded of the classic Andersen anecdote for obvious reasons. While he's never read it, he now recites the story aloud -- with rock ditties added -- as well as fields numerous interruptions from reveling chums. Furthermore, The Man Who'd Had Enough doesn't decide to change his reclusive ways before the three-person band swap amusing comments about how they developed their holly-jolly piece.

In their prefatory remarks, the trio says their aim was to write a rock concert crossed with a holiday show. So for the most part, Vigoda stands down-stage right, Milburn looms stage left behind his keyboard, and Lewin remains seated upstage center at his elaborate drum set.

Moreover, because Striking 12 has a refreshing back-to-basics feel, David Korins' set is so simple as almost not to be there; he's covered the stage with a white shag rug that looks like a layer of fresh snow. Behind the players he has a wall that continually opens and shuts to reveal a network of glittery Christmas-tree balls on taut strings. Michael Gilliam keeps shifting the lights on the sparkling wall-hanging to match the musical moods. For instance, red predominates when the forlorn match girl lights her matches to gain a few moments of warmth. The look is as lovely as the songs it backs.

As their name promises, Lewis, Milburn, and Vigoda like to locate a groovy groove and remain there. They do just that 16 times over, sometimes singly and sometimes duetting and trioing. Milburn's intensity on the ivories, Lewin's drumstick sleight-of-hand, and Vigoda's furious sawing are wonders. The three of them are living illustrations of the lyrics to "Snow Song," which opens and closes this brightly-wrapped Christmas present: "The world looks like new/Or at least that's the view/From here."