Groovelily are fooling themselves. In the beginning of “Striking 12,” the musical they have co-written with Tony winner Rachel Sheinkin, the folk trio insist they have created “a holiday show for people who don’t like holiday shows.” The script never specifies, but that presumably means auds who balk at sentimental morals about the magical power of love in December. But beneath its attempts at subversive humor, that’s exactly the message this tuner peddles. That sincerity is valid, of course, especially when it’s as pleasant and tuneful as it is here.
Wrapped in a purple bustier, Groovelily founder Valerie Vigoda carries her electronic violin slung over her shoulder like Eddie Van Halen’s ax. The image fits the conceit that “Striking 12” is as much rock concert as theater. Though they play various characters in a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” the band members rarely abandon their instruments. Drummer Gene Lewin and keyboardist Brendan Milburn are almost completely stationary, so the book scenes feel more like between-song patter than legit theater.
Nor do the performers give much pretense to acting. Granted, Milburn occasionally speaks as a misanthrope who would rather read Andersen’s fable than spend time with his friends on New Year’s Eve, and Vigoda delivers lines as the light-bulb seller (see the connection?) who wants to bring him out of his shell. But their characters get dropped when it’s time for another song. The numbers may be about fictional people — even the match girl gets a few tunes — but they are clearly performed by Groovelily.
And Groovelily behaves like they want to win us over. No matter a song’s tempo or theme, they play with smiling faces, carefully articulating every word. They seem thrilled to be onstage, and that earnestness is reflected in their lush melodies.
In other words, they resemble fresh-scrubbed vessels for the harmless holiday shows they’re meant to upend.
Their politeness hinders the supposedly rebellious humor. All three performers deliver jokes as though they can’t believe their own cheekiness, which means punchlines are oversold with big facial expressions and long pauses before funny words.
But are the words funny? One zany number is called “Screwed Up People Make Great Art,” which explains how Andersen could write a story about a match girl who dies. “He was often found dressing up in girly clothes,” the lyrics say, “so insane he wrote a lot of fairy tales to ease the pain.”
Elsewhere, we’re given the cliche of a white man rapping badly, then looking at the audience with an expression that says, “Can you believe it? I’m rapping!” And one of the parties Milburn refuses to attend is meant to get a laugh because it features “Brooklyn babes with biceps.”
“Striking 12’s” lame wit obscures its moments of beauty. Vigoda’s voice soars, and several of her serious ballads — particularly “Wonderful,” in which the match girl imagines a better life — sound like radio hits.
Similarly, the conclusion, in which the light-bulb seller and the shut-in escape loneliness by being together, delivers sweetness without irony. The harmonies in the final number induce chills.
Sheinkin and director Ted Sperling could have helped highlight these moments, even if they do contradict “Striking 12’s” stated mission. Both, however, seem content to let the band pretend toward comedy and edge.
But if Groovelily could embrace their bleeding hearts instead of apologizing for them, they would have a more authentic show.