Striking 12 at TUTS Underground: A Beauty of a Quasi Musical With Better Fortune Than The Little Match Girl Had

The set-up:
What a lovely ornament to hang upon our Houston theater tree – shiny in theatricality, bright in new-agey pop music, sparkling in lyrics, reflective in the warm spirit of the season.

Set in the chilly present of hip Manhattan on New Year's Eve, Striking 12 (2002), a pop concert from indie trio GrooveLily , produced by TUTS Underground, is an 80-minute tone poem that riffs on Hans Christian Andersen's classic short, very short, story “The Little Match Girl.” Three musician/singers play all the characters: Andrea Goss on electric violin, Ian Lowe on keyboard, and Zach Cossman on drums. It's a concert fleshed out with minimal movement, imaginative design, and a quietly effective message. It's a beauty of a quasi-musical.

The execution:
Grumpy Guy (Lowe) hates New Year's Eve. Still smarting from the recent breakup with his fiancee, he's work obsessed (“check the facts, fax the checks...”) and wants nothing more than to stay at home on the most festive night of the year. Forced partying is not his thing. His randy friend (Cossman, assuming many other roles throughout) invites him to a party that might spark with female bodybuilders; his fiancee leaves a passive-aggressive message not to attend a certain party where she will be; and a clueless female best bud asks him to sail around Manhattan on a midnight drunken cruise. He can't be bothered. “My angst is up and my battery's down,” Ian sings in mock homage to Bernstein's anthem to New York's unquenchable spirit from the classic On the Town.

A knock on the door. There stands waif Andrea (Goss), going door-to-door on this wintry night, selling special strands of “full spectrum holiday lights.” The brightness of her wares negate SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. She makes her pitch in under a minute; he thinks she's kinda cute, but sends her away. He's feeling blue and doesn't need, nor want, cheering up. “Fun on cue,” is how he dismisses the faux cheerfulness of December 31.

Her plight reminds him of Andersen's tale about the destitute little Danish girl who sold matches on New Year's Eve, and we're off on a hip journey that deconstructs Andersen, opens the stage's fourth wall as the musicians fall in and out of character, and tenderly, touchingly depicts the awful plight of the Little Match Girl. There's even a comic song (from drummer Cossman, the show's laid-back comedian) about author Andersen and his messed-up psyche: “Screwed-up People Make Great Art.”

Fortunately, the show doesn't follow Andersen's tragic outcome – the Little Match Girl, abused and unloved at home, lights her scanty supply of matches to stay warm, each precious one reminding her of warm memories and desires, until she hallucinates the appearance of her beloved dead grandmother, who takes the frozen little girl off to heaven. Talk about SAD. Unlike Andersen's downer, Striking 12 keeps the season's buoyant spirit of hope and good will toward men. Rushing from his apartment, Grumpy Guy finds the forlorn gal who tried to sell him her lights, and together they dispense them to anyone on the street they think may need cheering up.

Uttering charming and elegantly simple, this show may remind you of Kneehigh's wondrous Tristan and Iseult that the Alley presented last season during its hiatus at the University of Houston, as it takes a timeworn familiar story and spins it anew with theater magic and beauty of performance. Everything works: Ryan McGettigan's set is a wonderland of birch trees, candlelit windows, falling snow, and bare light bulbs. Colleen Grady's contempo costumes – work shirts, vests, jeans – add cool grunge, while Marley Wisnocki's direction takes the musicians and gives them wings, although they hardly leave their stations – that's some kind of magic in itself. Best of all is Christina Giannelli's ravishingly effective lighting, soft and radiant, warm, then icy and chilling to the bone.

The accomplished trio of musicians/actors is good-natured, blissfully energetic, and terrifically musical. When not blending in harmony, each of the triad gets to stand out and shine. The sound work could stand some improvement, since the superlative lyrics by Brendan Milburn, Valerie Vigoda, and Rachel Sheinkin, Tony-winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. often gets muddied through excessive amplification or from wobbly diction from the two guys. While the soft jazzy rock score with its tinge of pounding emo by GrooveLily's Gene Lewis, Milburn and Vigoda is easy to listen to and always right for the mood, it's the lyrics that truly shine. Witty, then heart-felt, then spiky and brittle, the words carry this show. “Everything's green and red,” Ian plaintively wails about the holidays, “and I'm feeling blue.” “Doesn't anybody need a light tonight,” Goss plainly dreams in the dark, as the emotionally drained Little Match Girl.

The verdict:
This little show has heart, intelligence, and odd, cool humor. Immediately, it puts you smack in the holiday mood. The run at TUTS Underground is a short as Andersen's fable, so go now. There's plenty of room on our expansive Bayou Christmas tree for any musical bauble this bright, sweet, and different.

Striking 12. Through December 23. TUTS Underground at Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit $25-$75.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover