By Quinn Rigg
“In a world where all professional athletes are gay,” the rambunctiously flamboyant Chicago Otters return to the field this season with more energy and competitive spark than ever before.
The sexuality-subverting Striking Out triumphantly returns to the Annoyance Theatre with some revisions after “Spring Training” last Fall—and how the fires of focus have tempered and hardened this fledgling piece. The remounting of this new musical never allows for a dull moment. With quick pacing and even sharper concision in dialogue and music, Striking Out does not keep its namesake—in the best way possible. (ChicagolandMusicalTheatre’s review and synopsis of that previous production of Striking Out may be read here.)
Writers and directors Adam Levin and Ryan Ford have loaded all their bases, with new additions and revisions to the toe-tapping, finger-waggling, bat-swinging score, concise cuts to dialogue and fantastic additions to an all-star team. Well-sung and expertly accompanied by a three-piece band, (with David Yontz on piano and Kyle Magyar on percussion) Striking Out has all of the makings of hard hitting musical comedy.
The gut busting-hilarity and endearingly hyperbolic characters of this musical comedy (typical of The Annoyance’s intimately zany sensibilities) are engaging and very well-cast. Newcomer Ryan Cashman as Jimmy Roberts sings with immense vocal dexterity and impressive range. Alongside him is the spunky Laurel Zoff Pelton as Penny Price, who performs with authenticity and excellent comedic timing. The charming duo plays well off of one another, and their vocal prowess greatly compliments newly-revised lyrics.
The show’s newly-cast leads are joined by returning members of the entire Chicago Otters team, who collectively perform with enough vivacious energy and exciting chemistry that everything they touch becomes comedy gold.
As the show’s gay-baseball Greek chorus, the Otter ensemble functions excellently as entertaining, engaging exposition, and each of their specific characterizations provide easily-identifiable traits to relate to and bond with—as Jimmy becomes part of the team, so too is the audience enraptured within this chaotic world of extreme feeling and impulsive action. Through the outlandish extremes of the Otters’ homoerotically-charged antics, the audience is able to latch unto relatable hope and endearingly genuine optimism that lies underneath the loosely-fitting baseball tees.
With rousing ear-worms like “Baseball Husband” and “Blow off Steam,” the Otters give all-star performances, well-supported by the clean, cute, clever choreography from Kyle Ryan and Lily Staski. Whether writhing to a saucy salsa, complaining in an “Officer” Krupke” parody, or regally delineating the sanctity of America’s favorite pastime, the Otter ensemble effortlessly executes the versatile choreography with perfectly polished physical humor.
Lyrically witty, musically brilliant, choreographically pleasing, Striking Out is an intensely entertaining night of revelry that swings for a game-winning home run.
If Striking Out falls short of a grand slam, it’s because its unbridled energy distracts from the comprehension of the second act. That is to say, the second act is very rushed and allows little time for the organic development of conflict, and the redemption of the show’s lead feels dissatisfying and unearned as a result. Moreover, the refreshingly high energy of this musical becomes frantic and overwhelming at times when the comedy relies on obnoxious screaming, rather than quick wit and tight timing. In the intimate space of The Annoyance’s Main Stage, the extreme escalations of volume are ear-splittingly loud.
This is not to say the the revised sense of pace is at all a bad thing—the show has a much more focused beginning and middle, it only rushes through the resolution of Jimmy’s inner and outer demons, as well as engaging development of the one-dimensionally avaricious sports agent Chester Wiesel (played by Sarah Porter). While the cerebral hallucination of Rence’s drag queen Babe Ruth is a rousing deus ex machina to resolve Jimmy Roberts’ internal conflict, the journey of reaching that revelation lacks a particularly dynamic or compelling arc—immediately upon exiling himself, Jimmy’s greed is expunged merely a few scenes later.
Provided that this musical takes a deep breath before the final inning to bring its attention to dynamics between the climax and falling action, Striking Out could be an out-of-the-park grand slam of a musical comedy; even still, with its current revisions to dialogue, pacing and lyrics, Striking Out is a crowd-pleasing home run, baring a stadium-full of heart, wit and honest-to-goodness musical humor.
The Annoyance Theater and Bar presents “Striking Out” every Saturday through June 16th at 851 W Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.