AISLE SAY San Francisco


Book, Music & Lyrics by Gene Lewin,
Brendan Milburn & Valerie Vigoda
Directed by Lisa Peterson
Presented by TheatreWorks
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Castro and Mercy streets
Mountain View, CA / (650) 463-1960

Reviewed by Judy Richter

It's always an occasion when TheatreWorks presents a world premiere even though it has now done so 60 times. This 60th premiere is "Wheelhouse," a musical created by Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, who also perform it. Together they are GrooveLily, a rock band that brought its highly successful "Striking 12" to TheatreWorks in 2004 and 2010.

"Wheelhouse" is a group autobiography primarily focused on the then 8-year-old trio's decision to pull up stakes, buy a not-so-gently used RV and go on the road in search of fame and fortune during the first 11 months of 2002. It turned out to be a misguided -- at best -- decision as the group had to deal with mechanical, personal and professional problems. The RV broke down several times, and sometimes the trio played for just a handful of people in places as varied as a church basement and a laundromat. The experience took a toll on their finances and their relationships, straining Milburn and Vigoda's marriage and almost estranging them from Lewin, who was trying to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend.

They tell their story mainly through music, mostly playing themselves, but sometimes playing characters (quick costume changes facilitated by designer Tanya Finkelstein) they met on their journey. The action takes place on Kate Edmunds' relatively spartan set, lit by Steven B. Mannshardt, but most of the scenic effects come from colorful, creative projections designed by Jason H. Thompson.

Lisa Peterson's direction keeps the action moving well, but it can't overcome weaknesses in the book. The show's premise is rife with possibilities. However, it barely touches on some of the problems inherent in such a journey such as unfamiliar places, tight quarters and, lack of privacy.

Imagining how difficult those issues would be, one can see how resilient the three ultimately were as they decided to sell the RV and keep going as a group. Quick projections show what ensued as Vigoda and Milburn had a son and Lewin married his girlfriend and had two sons.

The music is mostly rock (sound by Kris Umezawa) and features some close harmony by the three, who provide their own accompaniment -- Vigoda on electric violin, Milburn on keyboards and Lewin on drums and guitar. After a while, though, perhaps because the book lacks a strong emotional arc, the songs start to sound alike.

There's definitely a show here by these three likable performers, but for now it still seems like a work in progress.

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