TheatreWorks’ Wheelhouse takes the road to nowhere
GrooveLily’s Gene Lewin (left), Brendan Milburn (center), and Valerie Vigoda risk the “Game of Life” in the world premiere of their musical Wheelhouse at TheatreWorks. Photos by Tracy Martin
The members of GrooveLily, vocalist/electric violinist Valerie Vigoda, keyboardist/vocalist Brendan Millburn and drummer/vocalist Gene Lewin seem like such nice people. They seemed nice in 2004 when their Striking 12 (a pop-rock re-telling of “The Little Matchgirl”) sparked with audiences at TheatreWorks, and they seem even nicer in their new concert cum autobiographical theatrical piece Wheelhouse, now having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks.
The fact that they seem so nice makes it hard to say that I found Wheelhouse uninteresting. Nice but bland. It’s like being forced to watch somebody’s home movies while they play songs they wrote to accompany them. There’s no edge and there’s no real drama, which makes the show’s 95 minutes all the more tedious.
Wheelhouse is an extended flashback as the band contemplates its make-it-or-break-it moment a few years ago. Having not achieved the earth-shattering success they had envisioned for themselves, the GrooveLily members give themselves a “Day of Reckoning” deadline when they will decided, once and for all, whether the band continues or goes away. During the better part of the year leading up to that deadline, Millburn and Vigoda, who are husband and wife, and Lewin criss-cross the country in a used RV playing gigs – sometimes for thousands, sometimes for three – and figuring out what they want to do with their lives.
All of this is told in more than a dozen cheerful songs (even the downcast songs seem somehow cheerful) set against three giant screens full of zippy projections (by Jason H. Thompson) that show old photographs, roadside landscapes and, most importantly, the countdown to the Day of Reckoning. For me, that day couldn’t come soon enough, so I was especially interested in seeing those numbers tick downward.
There’s nothing remotely offensive about Wheelhouse, nor is it in any way unpleasant, save for its intelligent banality. This is smart music made by talented people, but it doesn’t feel inspired. Nor does it ever rise above a pleasant level to become anything authentically dramatic or gripping. They don’t traffic in cliche’s, nor do they every do anything that well and truly surprises. The best number is “Take on the World,” which begins and ends being accompanied by office items like phones, computer keyboards and staplers. “Open Roads” is also a memorable song because it has that hopeful, open-souled feeling of hitting the road full of idealism. The rest of the songs, though I made notes to myself to try and distinguish them, have evaporated from my brain.
And let’s talk about the lack of drama. The Day of Reckoning is supposed to provide tension, but come on. We’re watching the band perform. Right now. Live. We know how the story ends. By the time we get to the real home movies – photos of their adorable kids flashing by – we’re supposed to be in the “how brave of them to have chased their dreams so intently” phase. But I was in the “Gee, I hope they do something more interesting next time” phase.
Director Lisa Peterson tricks out the concert with a few theatrical flourishes – like the keyboard attached to the steering wheel as a representation of the RV and a fantasy game show sequence that attempts to add some fun to the show but seems out of synch. While GrooveLily may be a tight band, the members are not great actors (even though they’re playing themselves). Then again, they haven’t written themselves roles that require much exploration.
I wanted to like Wheelhouse and am disappointed I didn’t. I hope GrooveLily does something more fun or with more depth next time. But I have to say I was relieved when this musical road trip came to an end.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
GrooveLily’s Wheelhouse continues through July 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.