Playwright: Rob Anderson; Score: Mike Malarkey. At: iO Chicago Theater, 3541 N. Clark St. Tickets: 773-880-0199 or www.ioimprov.com/chicago; $12. Runs through: April 11
The opening night of Straight Camp, a new musical by performer/writer/director Rob Anderson (Steamwerkz the Musical) and composer Michael Malarkey, was marred by noticeable sound, lighting and video projection miscues. At the curtain call, Anderson made it a point to let the audience know that the opening performance was only the company's second chance to fully run through its show in the upstairs space of the iO Chicago Theater.
Now a glitch-free performance of Straight Camp certainly would have been nicer to see. Yet it wouldn't have improved the dramatic or motivational holes in this comedy about a group of teenagers who have been sent to a gay-to-straight conversion therapy camp.
Part of the problem is in the leading character. Whit Whitaker (Anderson) is a Broadway-loving teenager who gets sent to Mount Saint Cleanliness in Texas after he is caught kissing another guy in the dressing room after a triumphant turn in his high school musical. Whit's motivational journey isn't fully fleshed out as he goes from budding awareness of his sexuality and the hope that it will go away to assuming leadership to rescue his peers and plan an escape.
Instead, Whit takes a comedic backseat to the show's more wacky and quirky supporting characters. Leading the pack are the villains: the creepy and effeminate camp leader Pastor Father (Drew Anderson) and his enforcement flunky, a rather butch Deputy Ann (Katie Klein).
The fellow campers include Boy Scout Columbus Bumblebrook (Alex Garday), wannabe Latina Ferrera America (Amber Gerencher), Christina Ricci-obsessed nerd Jody (Jennifer Mills), a granola-loving character played by Andi Woody and the dim Guy Masterson (Andrew Knox), a straight guy who thought he was at Space Camp.
These supporting characters get more laughs from their personal quirks than the strange straight-to-gay exercises that are supposedly going to change their orientations. Also, the drama is lessened since both Pastor Father and Deputy Ann are so obviously closet cases from the outset.
In terms of the songs, there are some clever parodies of numbers from musicals like Chicago and Aida. But some of the original establishing numbers go on too long ("Texas: Land of God and Carbohydrates") or don't feel properly built up to ("Boners Over Butterflies" as the "you'll do" romantic duet between Whit and Columbus).
But perhaps I'm being too hard on a show that only charges $12 admission and has such a skilled ensemble that sings well and delivers plenty of great gross-out-humor laughs. It's just that the show's subject matter could have been made more of the butt of jokes rather than the not-so-bright teenage characters. Straight Camp is undeniably funny, but its comedy and story through-line come off as off-target.