Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, from left, in "Wheelhouse." Note the Winnebago's built-in keyboard. Not so obvious is the drum kit behind the driver's seat. Produced by TheatreWorks, the show is at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts through July 1.

'Wheelhouse' drives into town

GrooveLily musical at TheatreWorks Mountain View is moving, funny and a telling tale of being musicians

Reviewed by John Orr
June 2012

The good news is that GrooveLily is in town, performing its amazing, delightful and touching musical autobiography, "Wheelhouse," at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, through July 1.

The bad news is after July 1, Gene Lewin, Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda pack up their instrument cases and go away. (Unless, of course, the show is extended, which is very difficult to make happen at the CPA.)

So, everybody in the world who cares about the arts, especially music, and especially musicians, go see "Wheelhouse" while you can.

Because I want to say, "See? See what can be done with music on a stage? Just three musicians, and look at the power of what they do!"

GrooveLily's previous musicals, especially "Striking 12" and "Sleeping Beauty Wakes," have been big hits, especially at TheatreWorks, which is the wonderful company that is producing "Wheelhouse."

What: ''Wheelhouse''
World premiere of autobiographical musical about the GrooveLily's touring days in an old Winnebago
By: Valerie Vigoda, Brendan Milburn and Gene Lewin of GrooveLily Directed by: Lisa Peterson
Staged by: TheatreWorks
When: Through July 1
Where: TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Tickets: $19-$69; 650-463-1960 or

Other views
Karen D'Souza, Mercury News

Robert Hurwitt, San Francisco Chronicle

"Wheelhouse" is the story of their lives before success, when the three of them were trying to hit it big as a band, and had given themselves a deadline to do so. The day of reckoning.

It is the story, as Milburn says early on, "of the single most exciting mistake of my life."

Except -- it turns out to not really have been a mistake for the three of them to uproot themselves and hit the road in a creaky old Winnebago. Sure, Vigoda and Milburn went into debt. Sure, they had to play in places like church basements and laundromats. Sure, they were cuffed in the back of a police car because they looked too young to be in a Winnebago.

But, also, they found that their real home was with each other, as friends and as musicians. Vigoda and Milburn got married, made a baby. Lewin realized he really loved his girlfriend, Suzanne, and married her and made two babies.

And they found ways to realize the power of the gift of music they'd all been given.

This is a story that can resonate with anybody, anywhere, anytime, who has ever cared about any of the arts and had to struggle to make that art happen.

And, gee, is it ever a great show.

GrooveLily and director Lisa Peterson have done so many clever things to make this show work.

In one scene, Brendan is typing away at his day job; Gene is frustrated at a desk in his day job. Valerie is at home, doing laundry and making calls to get gigs for the band.

Gene, who is usually the drummer, picks up a box of what looks like paper clips or something, and starts shaking it like a castanet, as Valerie beeps away on the phone and Brendan adds some more percussion by clacking on his computer keyboard. A song happens.

It brings to mind the scene in "Coconuts" when Harpo and Zeppo play a cash register. Except that was just kind of musically impressive and funny. When GrooveLily does it, it's impressive, and it advances the story.

Vigoda, Milburn and Lewin are all amazing instrumentalists, usually with Vigoda on electric six-string violin, Milburn on keyboards and Lewin on drums. But they all get a turn on keys, they all get a turn on drums. They each sing some raucous tunes, they each sing some deeply touching ballad. And Lewin plays guitar several times. Chops. These people got chops.

Their basic gear - drum kit, main keyboard, violin stand - are all on movable risers, and come and go as needed.

At one point, Milburn comes in on a riser pushed by stagehands, driving the Winnebago - which is a Winnebago seat with a steering wheel, with a keyboard tucked under the steering wheel. And surprise! A small, electronic drum set behind the seat.

A diner table transforms a bit at a time into a full electric drum set, so Milburn and Lewin can perform a song while at breakfast.

In the aforementioned cop car, a small keyboard appears in Milburn's lap while he tries to convince Vigoda that things will be OK.

Tracy Martin / TheatreWorks
Gene Lewin, Valerie Vigoda and Brendan Milburn, in "Wheelhouse," with scenic designer Kate Edmunds' huge projection screens. The table becomes a drum kit.
All that stagecraft is fun and impressive. And the acting is all great fun! Milburn, who may be the champion worrier of the trio, is the most rubber-faced of the lot, going full bore into such nonsense as acting as a game show host. Lewin is hilarious as an RV salesman, in a wig and a loud plaid jacket. Vigoda gets to ham it up as a Southern diner waitress, offering about 10 variations for hashbrowns.

But the real power of "Wheelhouse" is in the music and in the writing.

A scene when Milburn and Vigoda, both deeply worried, comfort each other on the steps of the Winnebago is tears-inducing.

"See?" says Lewin. "See that?"

Because that's the story. Love of music, love of each other.

Three people brave enough to open their hearts to us and tell us their stories, beautifully.

That's the good news.