By Quinn Rigg
For millennia, humanity has sought, and continues to seek greatness—a permanent place on the proverbial pedestal of perfection. Our hunger may drive us to perform wicked and vile acts of desperation, but in the end, our pursuit of perfection draws out the best, most essential aspects of our personhood. We grow from the mistakes we make as we self-assess and improve.
The new musical Striking Out intends to develop these themes within the context of accepting identity and redeeming mistakes, while subverting typical heteronormative environments; that is to say, Striking Out is “a two act musical about the first straight baseball player in a world where all professional athletes are gay.”
A very controversial premise, to say the least, this new musical comedy swings for the fences, hitting hard with polished choreography from Kyle Ryan and Lily Staski, a varied and well-composed score, clever lyricism and a talented team loaded with comedic charisma. Unfortunately, this musical (ironically) strikes out in the final inning by way of a rushed, thematically obfuscated second act.
Striking Out follows the hopeful, talented and heterosexual Jimmy Roberts (portrayed with vigor and dynamic excitability by Marco Braun) as he journeys to baseball stardom in a gay-dominated society. He and his lover, the ever-ambitious and supportive Penny Price (played with spunk and effectively subtle hilarity by Olivia Nielsen) leave rural Iowa to pursue their dreams in the big city, as the Chicago Otters have lost their star player and are in desperate need of new (and inexpensive) hard hitter. A natural, Jimmy makes the team without a hitch—that is, with the exception of his controversial heterosexuality. To save themselves from certain blackmail, Jimmy and Penny hide their love and (rather uncomfortably) pretend to be siblings. As Jimmy leads the Otters to victory, the conniving athletic agent Chester (played by Mary Catherine Curran) plots to milk Jimmy’s talent for all the money it’s worth. Chester eventually wins Jimmy over, and soon the young baseball star is overtaken by greed and vanity, his booming fame consuming him.
This rather sudden shift of character presents a glaring issue in the composition of Jimmy’s character: he lacks conviction, and moreover, lacks set boundaries for what he will or will not do. Too readily does Jimmy shift from an innocent and hopeful farm boy to a selfish, passionless tire fire. Moreover, his love for Penny (the very reason for the musical’s primary conflict) is clearly invalidated in light of his willingness to shove her needs to the side.
Unwilling to face the consequences of his hubris, Jimmy renounces his new life with the Otters (and Penny) entirely. Only after a divine intervention from the drag queen ghost of Babe Ruth (played by Rence) is Jimmy ready to come to terms with his mistakes and his sexuality.
Suddenly motivated and reinvigorated after his three-month absence, Jimmy returns triumphantly when the Chicago Otters need him most, admitting his love for Penny publicly after winning the big game for for the team, singing “love is love is love”—which, in this context, is rather trite and moreover, uncomfortable.
The the song itself lacks humor in a musical that primarily consists of mindless gags and otherworldly circumstance; furthermore, the popular phrase itself is taken outside of the context of LGBTQ progress, applied to heterosexual (or our society’s preconceived “norm” of) love, and most of all, exists in a show that itself is not centered on themes of civil and social rights.
Striking Out’s many absurd circumstances and outlandish characterizations give rise to gut-busting hilarity and a refreshingly simple story of ambitious failures and triumphant redemptions…for the most part. The overall quality of this musical’s creative spunk is not to be overlooked—Adam Levin and Ryan Ford write well together, creating likably overzealous, dysfunctionally optimistic characters in a well-developed world of homosexual humor and pop culture references.
However, the dialogue they’ve written doesn’t necessarily hold up to the rejuvenating wit of the lyrics, nor does the book complement the compositional ingenuity and concision of the score; in short, while Levin and Ford have the foundational basis for a clever musical comedy, the dialogue lacks the wit and cunning word play that make the lyrics so engaging, which is reflective of the book’s overall lack of concision and focus on forwarding the plot.
That being said, this musical comedy is still supported wonderfully by its fantastic team—cast, composers and choreographers alike. Particularly hilarious and well-crafted performances from Olivia Nielsen as the spunky, optimistic, yet hilariously acerbic Penny Price, Jordan Wilson as Jimmy Roberts’ vain yet compassionate rival, Vince Valentine, as well as the many bright talents of the Chicago Otter ensemble.
As mentioned previously, Ford’s score is a well-crafted delight to listen to—the brain is never bored by his writing. Ryan and Staski accomplish amazing results with the space while contributing meaningful and interesting movement that supports and reflects the comedic vivacity of this musical and its characters. The energy brought to the stage truly replicates the fun, absurd chaos of a sports stadium—and this is a game to be seen with friends (though probably not family).
A ridiculous romp through a sexuality-swapped sports fantasy, Striking Out may not be the most socially inventive musical, nor is it a series-winning, out-of-the-park home run, but it is certainly a good time. Though awkwardly paced at times and thematically confused, this musical demonstrates a lot of unbridled creativity, and while a tad cloying in its conclusion, Striking Out does well to celebrate the LGBT culture and humor that so fervently pervades its pages. With additional rewrites and revisions, this musical very well may come that much closer to achieving greatness.
The Annoyance Theatre and Bar presents “Striking Out” through November 5th at 851 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.