Rock, folk, jazz and pop get fused for the holidays—and gorgeously, infectiously so—as the Laguna Playhouse celebrates New Year’s Eve a few weeks ahead of time with the L.A./OC Premiere of the GrooveLily musical Striking 12, and a more entertaining, exhilarating ninety minutes of nearly non-stop holiday magic you won’t find anywhere else in town.

STRIKING 12 - 3  First performed back in 2006 by Brendan Milburn, Gene Lewin, and Valerie Vigoda as “a cross between a GrooveLily concert and a holiday story,” Striking 12 has since gone on to 3-person, 8-person and sometimes even 12-person casts—all of them telling Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin, and Vigoda’s tale of a grumpy New York City clock-puncher, the incorrigibly optimistic “Little Light Bulb Girl” who pops into his life one New Year’s Eve selling electric remedies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD, aka the Wintertime Blues), and the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale that ends up working its magic on them both.

You know the one about The Little Match Girl whose only warmth on a freezing cold December 31st are the twelve matches she lights one by one until the very last one has burned out and sub-zero weather does what sub-zero weather does best.

STRIKING 12 - 4 That’s right, as our grouchy hero is about to discover, when Hans Christian Andersen’s “characters get what they want, there is often a rude surprise,” precisely what his best buddy informs him in “Screwed-Up People Make Great Art,” just one of the dozen or so GrooveLily songs featured in Striking 12, an intoxicating blend of the complex and the catchy.

Downer the original Andersen fairy tale may be, but the far sunnier Striking 12 ends up exactly what the doctor ordered for anyone suffering from any kind of SAD, particularly with the oh-so multitalented Brent Schindele, Matt Wolpe, and Amberly Rosen taking over for Milburn, Lewin, and Vigoda on keyboard, drums, and electric violin, and by the radiant Marisa Duchowny as Light Bulb Girl.

Director Janet Roston opts wisely not to overstage Striking 12, maintaining the original’s rock concert feel by keeping keyboardist, drummer, and electric violinist mostly in place throughout.

STRIKING 12 - 2 Roston’s biggest inspiration has been to split Vigoda’s original role in two, allowing Rosen to concentrate on her stunning six-string electric violin bow-work and Duchowny to take centerstage, occasionally strumming guitar or shaking/striking assorted percussion instruments, but mostly enacting the musical’s central role with warmth, charm, and heart, executing Roston’s moves with grace, and singing quite gloriously indeed.

True, there are moments when Striking 12’s heroine can get a bit too perky, but perky can be a refreshing change from grouchy, and everyone knows that characters as opposite as Grumpy Guy and Light Bulb Girl are more likely to attract than repel.

From “Last Day Of The Year,” which has our hero ranting about strangers talking to strangers and “bubbling like champagne,” to his “Resolution” to spend New Year’s Eve with cat, couch, remote, and La-Z-Boy, to “The Sales Pitch” our heroine gives for her “full-spectrum lights [to] penetrate the gloom,” to “Hey La La/Fine, Fine, Fine,” Grumpy Guy’s response to the questions that greet him when he finally does decide to attend a dreaded New Year’s Eve party, Striking 12 grabs its audience and holds them in the palms of its eight hands till the final fade-out (and the contemporary Christmas carol surprise that ends the evening on a tunefully nostalgic note).

Anyone who’s seen Schindele tickle the ivories in plays and musicals like Souvenir and The Musical Of Musicals (The Musicals) or Wolpe play guitar or drums as in the recent National Tour of Once or Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story knows that these are two triple-threats whose childhood music lessons have paid off in spades, Schindele once again proving the consummate romantic lead even in grumpy mode, and Wolpe as dynamic as ever, whether drumsticks a-pounding or sound effects a-making with mouth, tongue, and vocal cords.

As for Rosen, though her role in Striking 12 is primarily instrumental, you haven’t heard anything like her electric violin and the amazing sounds that emanate from her bow.

STRIKING 12 - 1 Finally, there is the captivating star turn of recent NYC-to-LA transplant (and Cal State Long Beach/A.C.T. grad) Duchowny, whose indie-folk-pop band creds, legit acting résumé, and background in physical theater add up to the perfect Light Bulb Girl.

Scenic designer Jim Prodger’s rock concert-ready set and Joe Larue’s imaginative projection design combine for just the right winter wonderland feel. Add to that D Martyn Bookwalter’s vivid lighting design, Juan Sanson’s crystal-clear sound design, and Prodger’s just-right costumes and you’ve got a production design to match the show’s all-around terrific performances and Schindele’s expert musical direction.

Jennifer Ellen Butler is production stage manager. Wally Ziegler is casting director.

There may be other more traditional ways to celebrate the holidays, but there’s none more musically exciting than Striking 12. It’s the opposite of SAD, and could anything be better than that at New Years?

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The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
December 10, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger

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