Monday, May 21, 2018

Quite a Curveball: Sharp and Tuneful 'Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical' Has the Makings of a Hit -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Striking Out
A Gay Baseball Musical
Annoyance Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 16

Although recent years have seen a few current, aspiring and former professional athletes publicly come out as gay, at least per anecdotal evidence the world of American team sports is far from a bastion of LGBTQ acceptance.

Though it seems likely that there must be some, there are currently no openly gay players in major league baseball.

The shrewd premise of the fine new musical, Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical, turns this reality on its head.

Written and directed by Adam Levin & Ryan Ford--including the music & lyrics of several fine songs--Striking Out imagines professional baseball as exclusively the province of homosexuals.

As the show opens, with a prelude espousing that "everyone in baseball must be gay," the Chicago Otters' dreams of a successful season--nicely voiced in "Maybe This Year"--hit a snag in Spring Training as their superstar, Lance Valentine (normally played by Jordan Wilson, but with Adam Levin pinch hitting at the performance I attended) goes down with a season-ending injury.

Borrowing a page from Damn Yankees--which the show knowingly references within--and The Natural, an unknown farmhand with preternatural talents seemingly comes to the rescue.

Problem is, the Joe Hardy or Roy Hobbs of this story--Jimmy Roberts (Ryan Cashman)--is straight.

But though his girlfriend, Penny (Laurel Zoff Pelton)--who aspires to become "the Al Roker" of sports television--accompanies him to Chicago, she pretends to be Jimmy's sister so he can pass himself off as gay.

No need for me to reveal any more that happens, and some of it is fairly predictable.

But along with well making its point about inclusion, openness, tolerance, acceptance, etc.--although despite the Otters having a female manager (Shelby Quinn) and two women providing over-the-top ESPNish analysis (Elizabeth Andrews, Susan Winters), all the baseball players are men--Striking Out is a winning enterprise largely due to its fine songs.

"Goodbye-Owa"--Jimmy Roberts' ode to his home state--is quite clever, and Penny and Lance nicely share the spotlight on "Left Behind."

While there is ostensibly some improvising happening in Striking Out, and the nearby Cubs--and their historic 2016 success--aren't far from anyone's minds, I'd have to guess that repeated references to The Lion King on Saturday night were more coincidental than directly tied to Joe Maddon also speaking of the musical/movie in a press conference that day, if only because few in the audience would've been aware of the Cubs manager's comments.

Supposedly revamped after an Annoyance run last fall (which I did not see), this still isn't a perfect show.

The limited run--Saturdays only, through June 16--in a shared space means virtually no scenery. With just a 3-piece band, the drumbeat tends to overpower. Hanging mics aren't ideal for some of the vocal timbres, particularly Cashman's, who was a bit hard to hear in the back of a small room. Though the performers were clearly having fun, there was certainly a bit of overacting. And there is an oddly pre-recorded song near the end, accompanying the interaction between Jimmy Roberts and a hallowed baseball legend, who probably should be but isn't Jackie Robinson.

Yet song after song--including Act II's "Baseball Husbands," "We're F*cked" and "Love Tonight"--brought a smile to my face.

So did Sarah Porter's take on devilish agent Chester Wiesel, conjuring thoughts of Ray Walston as Applegate in the Damn Yankees movie. (Another clear point of reference for this show seems to be Richard Greenberg's 2002 Tony winning play, Take Me Out, about a major leaguer who reveals that he is gay.)

Striking Out can probably use some adjustments to its mechanics, and I'm not suggesting it's presently ready for a transfer to the big leagues of Broadway, or even Off-Broadway.

But especially for just $20, there's no reason it can't make for a fun Saturday night for those who love baseball, musicals and the rights of everyone to live with respect, dignity and acceptance.

And with some financial backing to bolster the production values, there's really no reason Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical couldn't become a regional hit, along the lines of Ride the Cyclone.

As it is, it's already better--at least musically, if you accept that it isn't fully orchestrated--than many a show I've seen coming from or heading to Broadway.

Partway through its current Annoyance run, it was nice to see a good-sized crowd, and even if you don't connect with it in the coming weeks, Striking Out will ideally get more turns at bat somewhere down the road.

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