at the Royal George Theatre Center’s Ruggles Cabaret

The new musical play Is Anybody Out There? outlines the genesis of Chick Singer Night, a monthly showcase for female vocalists at the Beat Kitchen and the Chicago Hilton and Towers, where women are invited to “get together and celebrate their love of music.” The play–script, music, lyrics–was written by the founder of Chick Singer Night, Lori Ellsworth. The cast, most of whom perform at Chick Singer Night from time to time, are without exception fabulous vocalists. When they celebrate the music, the evening brightens immensely. But when they stop to act, cordless mikes in hand, it gets a little grim.

The story involves four friends, professional singers all, reaching for that elusive star, overcoming obstacles and enduring petty humiliations in the process. Kristin (Teri Wilder) sings in a nightclub run by an insensitive sleaze (Gary Taylor). Val (Cynthia Jackson) finds that her husband and children selfishly demand the greater part of her time, leaving little room for music. Gina (Michele Van Note) delivers singing telegrams while dressed as a chicken, and Andrea (Ellsworth) is singing jingles for a feminine deodorant spray called Breeze. All of them are dynamic singers, talented enough to snag a record contract if they would just keep trying, but the man handing out the contracts (Jim O’Heir) is more interested in Paula Abdul look-alikes and the four women aren’t getting any younger. Tired of singing commercial jingles and nightclub standards, they get together once a month to perform music that’s really important to them–and Chick Singer Night is born.

Chick Singer Night is a terrific idea. But its origins are not exactly rife with dramatic tension, and the play is as predictable and cliche-ridden as the diary of any struggling, starry-eyed performer on the rise. Stories of singing to doting grandparents or in the basement with a stack of Barbra Streisand records segue into confrontations with absurdly touchy commercial clients, slimy club owners, supercilious record producers, and catty competitors. This is all made even harder to swallow by the ever-in-hand cordless microphones; it’s tough work being a singer, but as long as there’s an amp nearby we know it’ll be all right. Director Mark E. Lococo might have tried to talk his singers out of these mikes and turned down the prerecorded accompaniment if he’d wanted a more theatrical approach; on the one occasion that someone sang without a mike, she had no problem filling the Ruggles Cabaret space.

The music and the lyrics tend toward inspirational easy listening–Burt Bacharach comes to mind. The performers, including Ellsworth, manage to save the most innocuous of these tunes (out of a dozen songs, only one or two are conspicuously weak) and fairly glow with the best of them. The petite Ellsworth’s seemingly effortlessly sweet voice is half again as big as she is. Van Note and Wilder may seem at a loss while they’re speaking, but never when they’re singing. The problem, from a dramatic point of view, is that they’re not necessarily singing as Andrea, Gina, and Kristin. Granted, it’s difficult to maintain a character when the script hands you only a thumbnail sketch of one, but Cynthia Jackson manages. She’s an entirely believable frustrated mother and wife, even while she’s singing, and it’s a pleasure to watch her achieve a balance between her home life and her career. As for the rest, well, at least it’s a pleasure hearing them sing.