Cast/band members (from left): Jason MacPherson, Erin McConnell, Desmond Hawkins and Julia McConahay.
As artistic director Meghan Randolph acknowledged in her pre-show speech for Striking 12, Music Theatre of Madison “does the weird stuff.” That’s an apt introduction to the indie-pop musical Striking 12, which is being performed at area libraries free of charge, and will be presented as a ticketed event Dec. 29 and 30 at the Brink Lounge.
Striking 12 is a quirky piece, featuring characters who are overwhelmed, lonely or simply cynical about the holidays. Originally devised by the band GrooveLily, a Seattle-based piano, percussion and violin trio, it plays as if a tight-knit group of musicians is trying out some songs from a project. They don’t have sets or costumes or actors per se, as they riff on the saddest of all holiday stories — Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. What they do have is a handful of character voices to handle brief dialogue between gorgeous songs filled with smart lyrics. They also have veteran musicians’ desire to interact with the audience — to ad lib and tell topical jokes between serious emotional moments in their story.
In this production, “the band” is temporary, assembled for this show, but the talent is exceptional. Desmond Hawkins plays the drums while assuming the role of The Man Who Has Had Enough. He’s a cubicle dweller at a soul-numbing company. His fiancée has recently left him, and even though friends call with offers of New Year’s Eve plans, he’s just not up for it. He’s equally disinterested in The Girl, played by Erin McConnell on the keyboard, who tries to sell him some Christmas lights that combat seasonal affective disorder. Instead, he stays in and reads the story of The Little Match Girl, even though he’s warned by others that it doesn’t end happily. The ensuing three dozen songs tell both the contemporary and classic stories, with the help of Julia McConahay’s transporting violin and Jason McPherson’s bass and electric guitar.
Striking 12 has been compared to Jonathan Larson’s 1990s rock musical Rent, and for good reason; both focus on disaffected 20- and 30-somethings at the holidays, and both are packed with poignant, intelligent songs that include rapid-fire monologues and beautiful ballads. It’s music you want to hear loud and occasionally want to dance to, which will make it a much better fit for the crowd at Brink Lounge than the staid attendees in library meeting rooms.
All four cast members are excellent musicians. It’s mesmerizing to watch them act, sing and provide their own accompaniment. But vocally and dramatically, McConnell and Hawkins outpace their bandmates. Their strong, expressive voices carry the show. But sometimes the banter with the audience between beats, which probably came naturally to the originators of Striking 12, seems forced here. It distracts from an unlikely mash-up of two engaging, almost magical stories.
If you are not in the mood for a typical holiday musical, but feel like you could use a little more light this time of year, I highly recommend checking out Striking 12. It will give you a new appreciation for a snowy night and validate your dread of awkward parties. You’ll leave the library or theater believing the refrain from one of the band’s songs: “Screwed Up People Make Great Art.”