Tuesday, December 6, 2022

"Striking 12" by Minneapolis Musical Theatre at Gremlin Theatre

If you're already sick of Christmas music, endless holiday parties, cheesy Hallmark movies, and other so-called festive signs of the season, then Minneapolis Musical Theatre's Striking 12 is the holiday show* for you. The main holiday here is New Year's Eve, by which time our protagonist is sick of the holidays and ready to retreat to his NYC apartment alone. Taking inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Little Match Girl," this original musical is funny, clever, and surprisingly poignant, but in a not treacly way. Which makes it perfect for this scrappy company whose tag line is "rare musicals, well done," and who perfectly performs this show in a way that feels both irreverent and earnest at the same time. Striking 12 is truly unique in the #TCTheater holiday space this year, an unexpected take on the holiday season that acknowledges the pressures and disappointments that go along with it, but in the end is a sweet story about finding connection. Striking 12 continues for two more weekends only at Gremlin Theatre in St. Paul (conveniently located next door to Lake Monster Brewing and their daily food trucks).

I'm not sure how one comes up with the idea to write a pop-rock musical inspired by "The Little Match Girl" and its author Hans Christian Andersen, featuring a man disgruntled by the holidays in modern-day NYC. But that's exactly what Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn from the band GrooveLily, along with Rachel Sheinkin, Tony-winning book writer of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, did, and it's such a bizarre idea that it actually works. This is the kind of inventive out-of-the-box thinking that music-theater needs. Striking 12 premiered Off-Broadway in 2006, and the creators have since written a few more musicals, all of which I now want to see (hint, hint, MMT!).

The narrative follows a man as he works late on New Year's Eve and heads home to his apartment alone, ignoring invites from his friends. His evening takes a turn when a young woman selling lights for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) knocks on his door and reminds him of "The Little Match Girl." He spends the rest of the evening reading the story, which plays out in scenes and songs as if he's seeing it in his head. In the Scrooge-like tale, the man has a change of heart and is inspired to connect with his fellow human beings (including maybe the SAD light seller) after experiencing the beautifully tragic story of "The Little Match Girl" (175-year old spoiler alert: she dies). Even as I write this it sounds weird, but trust me, the show brilliantly weaves together these disparate worlds and stories.

photo by Unser Photography
The original score has a great pop/rock/musical theater vibe with clever and expressive lyrics; it's meta, fourth-wall breaking, self-referential, and really fun. (I love the song about Hans Christian Andersen called "Screwed Up People Make Great Art," referencing everyone from Sylvia Plath to Vincent Van Gogh). Several members of five-piece onstage band (lead by Music Director Jean Orbison van Heel on keyboard) also play characters, making it feel like one big ensemble of music-theater storytellers. The whole cast (including six additional ensemble members) is fantastic - great singers and enthusiastic participants in the story (taking turns with narration). Many of them are new-to-me; MMT always does such a great job of casting talent that we may not be seeing on other stages, and we should be. Highlights include Nick Manthe as "the man," very relatable and likable despite (or maybe because of) his gruff attitude; Rachael Furgiuele as the sweet SAD light seller; and Madeline Kadlec, a revelation as the electric bass playing Little Match Girl, simultaneously rocking out on the guitar and singing these sad songs that make us feel all the feels (and giving off some serious ONJ vibes).

The show is performed with very little in the way of sets, allowing us to focus on the story and the imagery in the lyrics. In the empty performance thrust space at Gremlin, at the back of which the band is set up, a few black boxes with paint splatters are moved around in different formations as the only set pieces. Strings of Christmas lights hang overhead, dimming and brightening at appropriate moments. The cast is dressed in eclectic NYC grunge wear that's fun and funky. Even though it's a small room, the performers are miked to be heard over the rock band, but it's well done so that I could still hear individual voices coming from the performers, rather than all of the sound coming from the speakers. The choreography (by ensemble member Antonia Perez) fills the space without feeling crowded, and there are even some fun on-stage Foley sound effects, performed by ensemble member Charlie Morgan. (Scenic design by Dennis Joslyn, lighting design by Kurt Jung, costume design by Mandi Johnson, Audio Design by Forest Godfrey.)

Co-directed by Kari Steinbach and MMT's Artistic Director Joe Hendron, Striking 12 will make you laugh, tap your toes, and commiserate with the down side of the holiday season, while still warming your heart in the end, just not in an overly sappy way. Catch this unique sort-of holiday offering through December 18 only.

*Click here for reviews of all of the holiday shows I've seen this year.