Delicious Malicious Parody
By R. J. Donovan
SpeakEasy Stage is ending its season the way it began -- with a gem.
Having started with the sharp and funny sleeper hit “Bat Boy” (still running through June 28), they’re concluding things with the campy musical spoof, “Ruthless!”
Remember sweet little blonde pigtailed Rhoda in the old black and white movie, “The Bad Seed?” The viper with the evil smile? Little Rhoda bashed her little classmate in his little head to get the little medal out of which she felt she had been unfairly deprived in school?
Well, take Rhoda, change her name to Tina, have her commit murder to win the lead in the elementary school play (“Pippi Longstocking in Tahiti’”), mix in the best of “Gypsy” and “All About Eve”( among others), and you’ve got a caustic, non-stop theatrical locomotive.
Musical theatre buffs will delight in the fast paced story, the campy over-the-top characters and the endless inside references to everything from “A Chorus Line” and Daisy Clover to Auntie Mameand Mamma Rose. By audience reaction, you’ll be able to tell who knows their stuff when a 60s mobile from “Valley of the Dolls” swings into view.
The tone of the show is established from the beginning with the entrance of Will McGarrahan as diva talent agent, Sylvia St. Croix. Clearly a man in drag, McGarrahan brings a throaty-Tallulah Bankhead-ish tinge to every speech. Adding to the fun, Sylvia always strikes a pose before she speaks.
The first act focuses on Tina Denmark’s deadly plan to become a star, which she does, following the untimely demise of her little classmate, Louise (as in ”Sing out...).
The second act finds Tina’s mother, Judy, formerly a talentless schmootz, stepping into the spotlight only to be overshadowed by her devious assistant, Eve (as in “All About...“).
Although Judy starts off as a prim and proper bore, it turns out she’s got a colorful past she’s not aware of. At the same time, Sylvia's also got a secret that’s sure to shock. And what of Lita, Tina’s grandmother, an overbearing theatre critic who sees it as her personal mission to shred show business to bits.
Fear not, all will be unraveled as the world turns.
Kristen Parker brings a sinister sweetness to the role of 9-year-old Tina. The darling of her neighborhood, Tina is helpful to a fault and a joy to behold. At the same time, cross her and she goes from impish pixie to unholy villain in a deadly blink. The expressive Parker gets to show off her big voice in “I Was Born To Entertain.”
Judy is played to the hilt by Kathy St. George (left, with Parker and McGarrahan).When her star potential is revealed as the first act comes to a climax, she’s suddenly possessed by the essence of Judy Garland -- which St. George captures better than anybody around. Hugging herself, clawing at the air and crying out for Lorna, she’s soon on her her way to becoming a victim of “booze, pills and heavy meals late at night.”
Andrea Lyman is excellent as Miss Thom, Tina’s teacher and the director of “Pippi.” As wicked in her own way as Tina, she knows she belongs in show business but laments her sad fate in the bitter “Teaching Third Grade.”
Michelle Damigella is Louise in the first act, returning as Eve in the second. She’s the most fun as the nerdish Louise decked out in Pippy drag.
And capping the company is Margaret Ann Brady as Lita Encore, Tina’s grandmother. From the moment she appears late in the first act, she so delightful that you wish her role were bigger. She’s also got one of the best songs in the show, “I Hate Musicals,” in which she complains about Broadway being maligned by Hollywood stars, over-amplification and helicopters on stage. With bulletproof Ann Miller hair accented by a white skunk streak, Brady is an animated delight . (She’s also got a cunning lock-jawed affectation reminiscent of Harriet Harris’ delightfully smarmy agent, Bibi, on “Fraser.”)
With music by Marvin Laird and book and lyrics by Joal Paley, “Ruthless” won the 1993 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical. Laird and Paley have reworked their original creation for its SpeakEasy run, reportedly in preparation for both West End and New York engagements.
Larry Coen directs the solid cast with a deft hand that drives the frantic pace of the treacherous book, although at this point, the second act is a little long and could stand to be trimmed by one song.
Either way, by evening’s deadly end, secrets have been exposed, true identities have come to light and the body count has risen. When the dust settles, Tina is alone on stage, well on her way to a spectacular career in Hollywood, accompanied by a maniacal laugh.
And that’s show biz, kids.
"Ruthless!” is at The Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street in Boston through June 28. For information, call 617-426-2787.
Production photo: Craig Bailey/CBE
-- OnStage Boston
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