Us, the Musical

Wheelhouse is a musical that may be of interest if you have a burning desire to learn about the history of the rock band GrooveLily. If that’s something that’s never really occurred to you, not so much.

Valerie Vigoda, Gene Lewin and Brendan Milburn in Wheelhouse. Photo by Tracy Martin.

GrooveLily made a name for itself with its “concert with a story” Striking 12, a riff on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Little Match Girl” that was a surprise hit for TheatreWorks in 2004 and went on to similar success off-Broadway. Before that, the band wasn’t doing so hot, and that’s the story recounted in Wheelhouse, its autobiographical follow-up musical. I’d been a rock critic for about a decade when Striking 12 came along and had never heard of GrooveLily, and this show goes a long way toward explaining why that is.

Although it breezes through some band history before and after, the show concentrates on one year, 2002, when two turning points happen: The first is that the band decides to set a deadline 10 months off, that they call the Day of Reckoning, when they’ll have to decide (1) whether to stay together as a band and (2) whether the two bandmates who are married to each other want to have children. The second is that keyboardist Brendan Milburn quits his day job and convinces the whole trio to sell off their possessions, buy a Winnebago, and live in it full-time as a touring band. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, the used RV they buy is a gas-guzzler that keeps breaking down. The gigs they’re booking are half-empty church basements, bowling alleys and laundromats. And the experience of being cooped up together on the road for so long just brings all the doubts and frustrations about what they’re doing with the band and their lives to the surface.

The script, music and lyrics to the show are all written by the band, who also constitute the cast of the show, and Wheelhouse runs afoul of a number of potential pitfalls for anyone trying to turn their lives into a musical. One problem is that in reducing themselves to easily identifiable characters, they constructed thinly defined, one-dimensional versions of themselves. Drummer Gene Lewin, for example, is the guy who hedges his bets and likes to keep his options open. For the purposes of the play, he’s defined by that one character trait, as much as he would be if his name was the Duke of Doubt, and almost all of his dialogue and the songs he sings are about that. Brendan is the rash one who goes all in, and his wife, fiddler Valerie Vigoda, is in between, committed to the band but harboring grave doubts about whether they’re wasting their time.

A bigger problem is that while the issues the three are grappling with are obviously weighing heavily upon them, there isn’t much reason for the audience to care about any of it. The Day of Reckoning especially is hard to take seriously, no matter how many times they harp on it (which is often), and in fact when the day rolls at least one of the bandmates has forgotten all about it. It doesn’t help that obviously we know they’re still together today, so it’s not like there’s any suspense about that. A metaphor about the board game Life is particularly overused, and seems pretty hackneyed to begin with. None of it provides much dramatic weight to hang a play on.

The GrooveLilians are a likeable lot as themselves, and each of them has humorous turns as various minor characters: Lewin as a used-RV dealer, Milburn as a game-show host, Vigoda as a Waffle House waitress.

Director Lisa Peterson’s staging keeps things simple, despite largish set pieces that roll on and off. Kate Edmunds’s set looks deceptively simple, just a stage set up for a rock concert. Much of the scene-setting is done through Jason H. Thompson’s video projections on three screens dangling overhead, showing everything from pie charts to the open road speeding by. Even at 90 minutes without intermission, the show seems longer than it is, but that’s mostly because there’s not a lot you can do with this premise without spinning your wheels.

But seeing as how this is a show about whether this rock band can make a go of it or not, it seems natural to ask, are they any good?  Well, yes. A few of the songs are very catchy—the upbeat “We’re in a Rock Band,” Giving It All Away” and “Sing My Song” in particular—if the melodies are also sometimes naggingly familiar. All three players are strong musicians, and Vigoda’s electric violin is a seriously cool instrument, looking like a small red electric guitar and playing either violin or cello parts as needed.

One song starts with the three playing common office supplies as instruments—touch-tone phone, staplers, and computer keyboard—to such delightful effect that it’s almost a letdown when they return to their usual instruments to kick the song up a notch.  There’s also an amusing medley of funny country songs on the radio, all about car trouble.

Several of the other songs are on the mawkish side, starting with the very first number, which marvels about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned. Many songs are set in the high end of the vocal register, which presents two problems: It makes the songs sound a little sappier than they would otherwise, and all three performers’ voices have a tendency to crack when they sing too high.

The songs are solid enough, all told, but it’s not a band that I’d seek out for its music alone. GrooveLily seems to have found a niche in musical theater that really works for it, even if this particular show has too slight a premise to stand on its own. But that presents another problem for the plot, for me anyway: When the three wandering musicians are torn about whether or not they should continue as a band, I found myself hoping they did whatever would make them happy—but whether or not that involved keeping the band together, I have to confess that I didn’t care one way or another.

Through July 1
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA

Show #55 of 2012, attended June 9.

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