Wheelhouse is a coming-of-age story, performed by those who came of age. Valerie Vigoda, Gene Lewin, Brendan Millburn constitute the group GrooveLily. The musical tracks their lives from roughly 1994 to the present, with the years 2000 – 2002 in sharp focus.
What makes this different from other theatre is that this is a first-hand story. If Tommy was the first rock opera, Wheelhouse might be the first folk-rock theatre. With Vigoda on electric violin, Lewin on drums and acoustic guitar, and Millburn on keyboard, they present a high energy profile as they tell the story of buying an RV, going on tour and playing to ever smaller audiences.
Coming of age stories can be problematic when the subjects are roughly the same age as the audiences. “We were wild and crazy kids who grew up and are now proud parents” easily plays like so much self-indulgent navel-gazing. Putting your life to music doesn’t necessarily make your life art, especially when it turns on the clichéd ticking of a biological clock. This is the key weakness of Wheelhouse.
Wheelhouse could be salvaged by reworking the material. As it stands, the story focuses almost exclusively on whether Vigoda and Millburn would get it together to have kids, and whether the RV would break down again. The increasing exasperation of Lewin’s offstage girlfriend provides an interesting side line, but this is not enough by itself to supply some much-needed dramatic tension. The story would be energized if it focused more on the occasionally awkward relationship between the couple and Lewin (which is alluded to when Lewin complains “you can always outvote me!”). Exploring the world they confronted while touring could also refocus this material – which is hinted at but never really developed. One senses that these musicians need distance from their material.
The music is good, but not particularly memorable. No tunes remained lodged in my brain while exiting the theatre. While these three are accomplished musicians, their music doesn’t necessarily support a musical. Far more imaginative were the wigs and costuming used when these three played characters other than themselves. Other creative elements included video appearing on three large screens upon which much of the action played out.
Hopefully, GrooveLily can take this material out of themselves. A failed attempt at touring in an RV could be a great vehicle for other insights. However, merely recounting the “worst year of our lives” merely raises a yawn.