Minneapolis Musical Theatre opens “Striking 12” at the Gremlin

The Little Match Girl story takes a wacky turn in a Scrooge-tinged mashup.

Madeline Kadlec as the Little Match Girl and Nick Manthe as The Man in MMT’s production of “Striking 12.”

Minneapolis Musical Theatre is offering a fresh take on The Holiday Musical with a lesser-known show called “Striking 12” by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda, a.k.a. the eclectic pop band GooveLily. MMT is known for their “rare musicals well done,” and this lives up to the name.

Here’s the story. Wounded by a recent breakup with his fiancé, “The Man,” an office worker, declines invitations from friends and co-workers to party on New Year’s Eve. He claims he doesn’t like all the hoopla (my word, not his) around the holidays, nor does he socialize comfortably. He’d rather stay home in his Lazy Boy with a beer and the remote. He ends up reading the classic Hans Christian Andersen story, “The Little Match Girl,” and we are off on a contemporary retelling.

This is where the miracle happens, you might say, because the logic is balancing on a very fine thread. The Man’s modern-day dilemma and the classic tale just aren’t … well, a match. Although the writers concocted all sorts of excuses to make it work, there is only a flimsy connection between the Little Match Girl theme and the modern-day grumpy guy.

But that might not matter to you at all.

The songs are so interesting – both lyrically and musically – that you will be swept up and riding it out like a strange dream set to an irresistible musical score. Lovely ballads with warm and original melodies, comedy with a light rock beat (“This is the sound of the party you don’t get to go to”), and adroit thematic turns (“Screwed up people make great art”) all have their moments. And the harmonies! So scrumptious and often complex, this cast shares a rich jazz-meets-pop soundscape beautifully.

Although it truly is an ensemble show, special mention must be made of Nick Manthe as the appropriately cranky protagonist, (The Man) who’s gifted with some fun lyrical wordplay (“I stare them down as I go down the stairs,” “everything’s green and red and I’m feeling blue”) and navigates the character’s journey to the new year and a new beginning amazingly well, given the half-baked plot line. Strong consistent vocals are paired with a slightly underplayed performance, which I appreciated.

Madeline Kadlec not only anchors the band rhythmically playing bass, she sings the role of the Little Match Girl with pop perfection, giving us just the right blend of vulnerability, vocal turns and silvery high notes. (If she isn’t fronting a band, she should be!)

Rachael Furgiuele as the SAD light seller appears at Jack’s door selling not matches but strings of lights to treat seasonal affective disorder, and delivers a fresh send-up of a patter song not once but repeatedly, in her 60-second “The Sales Pitch.” Funny stuff!

The drummer even gets his own scene and a song (“Give the Drummer Some”) which was fun, but (again) random. However, comic relief dropped into a dark moment in the story, which is feeling it’s way as it is, manufactured a crowd-pleaser with Paul David Stanko’s performance of it.

Co-directors Joe Hendren and Kari Steinbach used the simplicity of different sized boxes on the Gremlin’s thrust stage to great advantage. The biggest one housed a few props that appeared and disappeared like magic. With all 11 performers on stage all the time (playing everything from a telephone ring to a storyteller) there was a lot of traffic to direct, which Hendren and Steinbach managed deftly. Music Director Jean Orbison Van Heel must also be credited with managing the score with finesse and getting nicely balanced vocals, especially in the harmonies.

Given the intimate space, I would have appreciated more moments of stillness with less swaying and head bobbing to the music. It’s a small house and a small stage, which is, by the way, ideal for a show like this one, but stage business, like music, needs enough rests.

But for a bit of direct-address narration and a few spoken lines dropped into the songs, this show is music, music, music, and it is “well done.” The ensemble in MMT’s production carry off yummy harmonies (I don’t mind repeating this) and solos, all the while toting those boxes around the stage and freestyle dancing.

If you have a soft spot for well-written pop songs (or even if you don’t, this score is clever enough to win you over), you’re going to have a great time!

The 80-minute performance runs without intermission, now through December 18. Visit www.aboutmmt.org for tickets.

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