Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 15, 2012

There's heart in this groove

Inventive band GrooveLily takes a moving autobiographical journey at TheatreWorks

by Jeanie K. Smith

The eclectic band GrooveLily has been a local favorite ever since its first musical, "Striking 12," played at TheatreWorks in 2004 to raves and accolades. The musicians' latest work, "Wheelhouse," is again bringing audiences to their feet at the satisfying end of a feel-good journey through emotional, relational and artistic catharsis.

"Wheelhouse," presented again by TheatreWorks, takes us back in time to 2001-2002, before "Striking 12," to a time when the band was sorting through a kind of identity crisis. The trio — Valerie Vigoda on violin, Gene Lewin on drums, Brendan Milburn on keyboards, and all three on vocals — had just begun to think of themselves as a real rock band when they decided to go on the road in a Winnebago, leaving New Jersey behind and playing gigs across America in the hopes of building a following.

Only Lewin tenuously kept his "day job," holding on to precious income as well as his patient girlfriend back home via his cell phone. Vigoda and Milburn, already married to each other, approached a self-imposed Day Of Reckoning, when they planned to force a decision about having children, keeping the band going and/or opting for different career paths.

The autobiographical road trip gets chronicled in both narrative and song, taking us along every highway and pit stop as the musicians experience challenges they hadn't anticipated: dwindling audiences; indifferent audiences; problematic venues, like laundromats and basements; the difficulty of booking viable gigs; and the unpredictable factor of RV repairs. But all these material challenges really expose the problems they're having maintaining relationships with each other as they deal with the difficulties — as friends, as band members, as marriage partners, as artists.

Knowing the band, we know the outcome already. But it's the journey that compels us to stay engaged, and I would wager that all of us identify with at least some aspect of the trip. We all face difficult choices at times, life-changing decisions about dreams and aspirations, visions built on ideas about who we are and what we're capable of, decisions affecting our loved ones and ourselves. How we navigate, how we take the wheel (or don't) is of huge import, and GrooveLily tells its particular story with unflinching honesty and a healthy dose of humor.

The music is "classic" GrooveLily: a mix of rock, jazz and musical-theater styles, sometimes all at once, with occasional flights into folk elements or even "found" instrumentation. Each band member gets vocal and instrumental solos along the way; each has his or her bravado numbers as well as quiet, thoughtful pieces.

The overall effect is of a continuous wash of music, taking us along for the ride, as it were, through emotional hills and valleys and coming to a glorious resolution. The show does start off kind of slowly, a little tentatively, but soon grabs you with the narrative, and then the music takes hold and you're hooked. The only thing I didn't get enough of was Vigoda's powerhouse violin. I kept waiting for that knockout solo flight that I've loved in the band's other shows.

Lights by Steven B. Mannshardt, scenic design by Kate Edmunds, and projections design by Jason H. Thompson all work together to provide a superb backdrop and support for the storytelling, sometimes with wonderful whimsy. Sound designer Kris Umezawa has done an excellent job of balancing the band and voices in the space; no earplugs necessary, and you can hear every word of the narrative.

GrooveLily fans will enjoy learning more about the band's past and feeling like the three band members are old friends. The show's intimacy invites that kind of warmth and familiarity.

Those who haven't seen the musicians before will have a chance to get to know this amazing group. Their brand of musical theater is like nothing else: imitable, quirky, fun, fanciful — and, in this case, inspirational.

What: "Wheelhouse," a GrooveLily musical presented by TheatreWorks

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through July 1, with shows at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Cost: Tickets are $19-$69.

Info: Go to http://www.theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.

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