Blockbuster seasonal entertainment includes Wynonna, Celtics and GrooveLily in Monterey and Carmel.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Think about it: Vince Guaraldi’s affecting A Charlie Brown Christmas score. It’s a Wonderful Life. Mounds of kitsch– like hair metal band Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas and the 1964 film Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. All were inspired by the holiday season. In the coming week, Monterey County plays host to a selection of similarly diverse holiday-inspired offerings, ranging from an eclectic music-theater hybrid to Wynonna Judd abandoning pop country for storied Christmas songs.
One critically lauded addition to the holiday canon is the pop trio GrooveLily’s music and theater piece Striking 12, which will be performed this Sunday at Carmel’s Sunset Center. Co-writer and performer Brendan Milburn says that he, Valerie Vigoda and Rachel Sheinkin decided to try and make a holiday theater piece in 2002 as his career as a touring musician began to flounder.
“It was born out of desperation,” he says.
Since the mid ’90s, Milburn, a pianist, had been in a pop rock band called GrooveLily with violinist Vigoda and drummer Gene Lewin. The trio toured frequently with the hope of securing a major label record deal. In 2002, Milburn and Vigoda gave up their apartment and moved into an RV in an attempt to save money while touring. Unfortunately, the RV’s engine seized up after only three months on the road. “It was a really terrible time,” Milburn says.
Then, while watching his wife and bandmate Vigoda do a holiday performance with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Milburn realized what GrooveLily needed: their own holiday show. Milburn, who went through a graduate musical theatre-writing program at New York University, sought out a fellow classmate to help compose what he calls a hybrid of musical theater and a concert. That collaborator ended up being Rachel Sheinkin, who wrote the book for the Tony Award winning musical comedy The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
With Vigoda, Milburn and Sheinkin decided to update the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Little Match Girl,” which is about a poor girl who passes away while selling matches on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s the most depressing story written in Danish,” Milburn says.
Titled Striking 12, their revamped take on the tale is about a depressed wage slave working in New York City who decides to stay in for New Year’s Eve. His night changes when a woman comes to his place selling light bulbs that are supposed to keep “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) at bay. The lady’s visit compels the man to re-read “The Little Match Girl” on New Year’s, and Striking 12 splits its time between the fairy tale and the story of the loner in New York City in contemporary times.
Milburn plays the part of the loner, and Vigoda portrays the saleswoman. With Lewin, they also perform the show’s 19 songs– including “Snow Song (It’s Coming Down),” a stripped-down pop number where Milburn’s plinking piano imitates falling snow.
“None of us is the world’s greatest actor,” Milburn says. “We are not Olivier or Meryl Streep.”
Still, Striking 12 received considerable acclaim when it opened at Philadelphia’s Prince Music in October of 2002 and when it appeared off Broadway in 2006. According to a theater review in The New York Times, “this modest show is more artfully crafted and engaging than virtually all the standard-mold musicals coming our way these days.”
GrooveLily’s reinvention has continued since the release of Striking 12. Last spring, the writing trio behind the seasonal piece put together and performed in another theater work, Sleeping Beauty Wakes, which played at Los Angeles’ Kirk Douglas Theatre and co-starred deaf and hearing actors.
“We’ve kind of made this transition,” Milburn says, “into being a band that does hybrid musical theater.”
While GrooveLily created a holiday piece in an attempt to change the course of the pop band’s future, Irish storyteller Tomaseen Foley wrote A Celtic Christmas so that he could revisit his past holidays of growing up in a rural region of Western Ireland.
Foley spent his first 18 years in a 150-plus-year-old stone house with a thatched roof on a small farm that was part dairy land and part bog. “It’s been in our family for almost 300 years,” he says.
His A Celtic Christmas, which will be performed this Saturday at the Golden State Theatre, is a mix of storytelling, dance and a show of traditional Irish numbers including “Amhrain Mhuinse.” Along with Foley, there are four other performers who bring the material to life, including Grammy Award-winning guitarist William Coulter. “It’s based on a night before Christmas when neighbors would gather at a house,” Foley says.
Foley moved to Ashland, Oregon, 13 years ago. Since the move, he has regaled American audiences with his tales about his native land and its wealth of characters. The storyteller says A Celtic Christmas evolved from Foley telling tales about the holiday season. “It was very well-received, much to my surprise,” he says. “I thought the stories were too local to have universal appeal.”
Since completing the show 11 years ago, Foley has been taking A Celtic Christmas on the road annually. Foley says that he hopes audiences gain a couple of things from attending his holiday show.
“My first hope is that they enjoy it,” he says. “My second hope is that it rekindles the value of community in people.”
Another musician who has looked to the past to create a holiday inspired work is Wynonna Judd. Judd, who performs a holiday show at the Golden State Theatre this Thursday, released A Classic Christmas in 2006.
It’s a wonderfully retro holiday outing awash in strings. It includes the vocalist’s jazzy pop takes on “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” and evokes an earlier era when a holiday record would crackle and pop on the turntable like the nearby fire in the hearth.
In an interview with CMT.com, Judd says she was definitely attempting to capture the sound of holiday albums from yesteryear.
“I just really resonate to the old-fashioned,” she says. “There’s a part of me that longs for a time– a very romantic time– in music when Dean Martin and Ol’ Blue Eyes [Frank Sinatra] made records the right way. There’s a part of me that longs for that style of making records.”
Judd goes on to say that she hopes a family member and a musical peer will react positively to A Classic Christmas. “I wanted my grandmother to listen to it and say, ‘Oh, does that take me back!’ If Pavarotti listened to ‘Ave Maria,’ I wanted him to say, ‘That’s really good’– instead of, ‘She should stick to country.’”
GrooveLily performs Striking 12 7pm Sunday, Dec. 14, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos at Ninth, Carmel. $25-$35. 620-2048.
Tomaseen Foley’s A Celtic Christmas takes place 8pm Saturday, Dec. 13, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $39.50. 372-3800.
Wynonna Judd performs a special holiday show 8pm Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $55-$135. 372-3800.