Authors: Ryan Ford & Adam Levin. At: The Annoyance Theatre, 851 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-697-9693 or TheAnnoyance.com; $15-20. Runs through: June 16
Sometimes holding a show under a critical microscope has no value; it feels like punching a kitten. A production like Striking Out ( A Gay Baseball Musical ) isn't going to going to win any Jeff awards, but it does inch the quality of Chicago's improvised musical scene up a notch, and it has already won the premise powerball.
In Striking Out, baseball is dominated by openly gay players, and the thought of a straight man picking up a bat is laughable. However, when star player Lance Valentine ( Jordan Wilson ) gets injured in a chorus-line mishap, the Chicago Otters must hold open tryouts to replace him, and their replacement, rookie Jimmy Roberts ( Ryan Cashman ), is very suspicious. He never wants to go clubbing, he spends all his time with his "sister" Penny ( Laurel Zoff Pelton ), and he's capable of turning down Beyonce tickets. Heterosexual Jimmy works tirelessly to throw everyone off his trail; high-powered lesbian sports anchors Susan Winters ( Jordan Lee Cohen ) and Roberta Nightingale ( Elizabeth Andrews ), his coach ( Shelby Quinn ) and even agent Chester Wiesel ( Sarah Portertechnically a pants role, but it's fun imagining a world filled with business lesbians ). In musical tradition, relationships get put to the test, and in sports tradition, it all comes down to the final play.
Striking Out walks a delicate line between improv looseness and musical exactness. When performers are trying to hit the mark, coordinating songs with choreography and stage effects, they come away a little dead-eyed and passionless, forgetting the emotions involved. The moments that hit with the most power are numbers like "Love is All We Need Tonight," that are simple, allowing performers to get comfortable enough to improvise. It hardly matters if you go up on the lyrics in a love song, the words aren't importantjust kiss, already!
One character duo given more story function and complexity than you'd see in an average musical is long-suffering girlfriend Penny, played with odd charm by Laurel Zoff Pelton, and villain-turned-bestie Lance Valentine, made ultra-sardonic and shallow by Jordan Wilson. The two share a comedy song "Tired of Waiting" that would feel at home in an episode of Crazy Ex Girlfriend. I'd also be loathe to forget this production's turned-on-its-ear take on testosterone-fueled sports reportersRoberta Nightingale and Susan Winters, played by Elizabeth Andrews and Jordan Lee Cohenwho are forever ramping up to a screaming match.
By act two, Striking Out delivers the utmost in heterophobic jokes, you just have to wade through a lot of hit-or miss material to get there. If you've ever wondered how a drag-queen Babe Ruth would lip-sync for her life on RuPaul's Drag Race, this show is definitely for you.