Photo by Liz Lauren
According to PrideArts Artistic Director Jay Españo, the musical with which the theatre opens its 2023-24 season, Gay Card, which Españo also directs, is “just a simple story of a gay man trying to find where he belongs.” It’s an entertaining story told by an exuberant cast who all seem to love being part of it—at least one of whom is a major star-in-waiting—but it is weakened by two major elements, both of which can be attributed to the show’s creators, Ryan Korell and Jonathan Keebler.
First, at two hours and ten minutes, it is at least half an hour too long. (Seriously, this show would be much improved if it were cut to a 90-minute one-act. Though it does have a “natural” point at which to break—Christmas vacation—there is no reason for it to be two acts long except to sell refreshments at intermission.) Second, the central premise of the show’s first hour involves students in a diversity-themed dorm called, bluntly, Diversity House, who simply refuse to accept that a new freshman is gay because he does not adhere to their internalized picture of what “gay” is. (Their excuse is that he is not as “awesome” as a gay guy should be.) It makes for an interesting first act as the young man (Logan, played by Ben Ballmer) tries on various stereotypical gay “types” in order to find where he fits, failing miserably at all of them and ending up with his dormmates shunning him and calling him “straight” as an insult.
Until this issue was resolved (which, thankfully, it was), it tainted my entire experience of the first act. It’s not that Logan is a great guy—in fact, he’s a bit of a jerk—but the notion that one cannot acquire one’s “gay card” except by adhering to archetypes that, though they have basis in reality, are not the only ways to be gay…or anything else, for that matter. Every time the plot came back around to his “trying on” personas that were foreign to him in order to earn that mythical “card,” I cringed. Ballmer, all flailing arms and legs, does his best to mimic the ideal for each gay tribe—”twink,” “gaymer,” etc.—but fails, often for trying too hard but sometimes for simply bizarre reasons. One cast member comments that he doesn’t do “twink” well because he is too thin, even though slimness is part of what the twink stereotype is all about. (I did like his failing as a “gaymer” after touting SIMS, though.)
Anyway, at a college Pride Night just before the Christmas break, Logan finally finds acceptance, cementing his gay card by publicly kissing the gay porn star who is acting as a kind of grand marshall. It’s a winning gambit, but in doing so he alienates the two people who are closest to him: his longtime best friend Melanie (Sophie Murk), who has always loved him, and Graham (Freddy Mauricio), the young man who has slowly been falling in love with him all semester. Logan becomes a master class in gaining the whole world but losing his own soul, and the second act follows through on how he manages to set things “straight” (sorry). Because this is a musical comedy, of course he succeeds. It’s all far too easy, if you ask me, and relies too much on coincidence, but OK. He may not deserve his happily-ever-after but, again, musical comedy rules apply.
Españo’s direction—I especially love the way he stages the three-part team called the “Blog Trio”—and Britta Schlicht’s fun choreography, along with some very creative costuming by Shawn Quinlan, keep everything alive and eminently watchable, and the ensemble is rife with enjoyable characters. Ballmer, the ostensible lead, can be charming, but Korell and Keebler keep forcing him to be a contemptible twit, and it’s hard to keep rooting for someone like that. (For the record, Ballmer never seems totally at ease with Logan’s actions, which I’m sure is an instruction from Españo that he takes to heart, keeping the character just this side of the darkness and, therefore, redeemable.)
Other significant characters include Justin (Nathaniel Thomas), a heterosexual high school jock seeking to reinvent himself without losing his caché; Danielle (Rachel Carreras), the hypersexual dorm RA; Cory (Joseph Alvey), a bi dormmate who would like to make it with second-act Logan (although, to be fair, he isn’t very discriminating) after mostly dissing first-act Logan; July (Maya Radjenovich) an effervescent girl who explains her odd name by saying that her parents named her April and “Do I look like an April?”; and the aforementioned Blog Trio (Michael Idalski, Elijah Warfield, and Adelina Marinello), who appear in light-up goggles and satirize the help blogs found online.
Which brings me back to Graham and Melanie.
We learn a lot about Graham here. He’s Logan’s opposite, a young man who calmly studies people, doesn’t care about fitting in, and has many friends because he isn’t trying to get them. It’s inevitable that he sees something in Logan that attracts him (as opposites do). He’s holding back, of course, every bit as much an issue as Logan’s über-anxious need to twist and contort himself into stereotypes. Because of that, though, he can be hurt badly if he allows himself to feel.
That’s Melanie’s problem, too. Instead of sneakily posting on the Gay Card Blog like Graham, she is focused entirely on her education (she even sings a song, “Extraneous,” about the intersection between feelings and, well, math). What she is holding inside, though, is the fact that she has been in love with Logan (hopelessly, she now knows) forever. It hurts her to see him transform from the boy she knew into…whatever he is turning into. She has several songs about her feelings, and though the whole cast are strong singers, Murk towers above them. On opening night she received several long ovations—the longest one probably in homage to how she held it together when her mic went out, raising her volume and hoping that Robert Ollis’s five-piece band would adjust on the fly…which it did—and all of them were deserved. Truthfully, it is Melanie’s story here as much—if not more—than Logan’s, and all of her joy and pain are earned by Murk.
In the end, as the characters sing, we are all “figuring it out as we go.” What Korell and Keebler need to figure out is how to take this show to the next level. I hope that, in doing so, they don’t cut the several lovely character ballads. The more high-energy songs are strong, but the softer (often solo) numbers are the show’s heart and soul. It has a good heart, but its soul is still seeking its center.
Gay Card is playing at PrideArts, 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago, until September 24. Tickets are available at pridearts.org. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.