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Southern Florida by John Lariviere


Ruthless!The Musical


Julia Dale, Amy Miller Brennan and Gabriel Zenone
Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre recently presented Ruthless! The Musical starring local Miami Heat singing sensation Julia Dale as that little girl you love to hate, Tina Denmark. Featuring music by Marvin Laird and book and lyrics by Joel Paley, Ruthless! The Musical opened Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre on March 13, 1992. It closed on January 24, 1993, after 342 performances. The show won the 1993 New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and launched the Broadway career of then child star Laura Bell Bundy. Though it was written for an all-female cast, the role of Sylvia St. Croix is traditionally performed by a man, simply because a male actor (Joel Vig) gave the best audition for the part in the original production, and went on to receive rave reviews.

Ruthless! The Musical is a spoof of movies like The Bad Seed and All About Eve and Broadway musicals like Gypsy and Mame. The story surrounds the ultra-talented eight-year-old Tina Denmark (Julia Dale) who will go to any length to secure the coveted leading role of Pippi Longstocking in her elementary school's production of Pippi in Tahiti. When the opportunistic talent agent Sylvia St. Croix arrives on the scene ready to exploit Tina's talent, she discovers that the only talent Tina's vapidly sweet mother Judy Denmark (Amy Miller Brennan) seems to poses is being the perfect housewife to an ever-absent husband. Alas, Tina does not possess her mother's sweetness. She instead possess a ruthless desire for success that compels her to dispose of anyone who gets between her and that desire. Woe to the untalented Louise Lerman (Jeni Hacker) who gets cast in the lead instead of her, and third grade teacher Miss Thorn (Sally Bondi) who cast her! Tina's behavior lands her in the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues (a reference to the Natalie Wood film Inside Daisy Clover). While Tina is supposedly being rehabilitated there, her mother is reunited with a past and a talent long forgotten. Suddenly, the once shy Judy Denmark becomes a temperamental Broadway diva known as Ginger Del Marco. When Judy's mother—the theatre critic Lita Encore (Leigh Bennett)—and Sylvia St Croix arrive at Ginger's (Judy) large and stylish new home to welcome Tina upon her return, we soon can see that no home is big enough for two stars!

There are so many things in this script that make one chuckle. Portions of the plot line teasingly follow that of the cult film The Bad Seed, right down to Judy's misplaced past and lyrics to the song "Kisses and Hugs." I can actually hear the line from the movie, "What would you give me for a basket full of kisses?". The answer "a bushel of hugs" is far less creepy when not offered to a murderous child. There is Ginger's personal assistant named Eve who acts like a crazier version of the character right out of the film All About Eve. There are campy show biz quotes like Tina's "You're right, mother. There's no money in theater ... we're moving to L.A. ... We'll do a sitcom!" and Judy's "So many lessons that I should've taught her, like, for example, to not kill her friends!" One liners abound, but pacing is indeed a problem with this production as the one liners need to fly by at a pace used in older sitcoms and movies. (Think Buddy, Sally and Rob on "The Dick Van Dyke Show"). There is way too much time setting up the joke, doing the punch line, and acknowledging it. It drags down the first act, and too deliberately asks us to laugh.

Our Tina Denmark, Julia Dale, is a powerhouse, though it is tough to see how much real acting ability she has since the character is more about showing off than acting. One thing for certain is her strong singing voice and undeniable stage presence. The lovely and talented Amy Miller Brennan is perhaps too soft and demure in the first act as Judy. She should aim for a more unsettling, robotic perfection (a la Stepford Wives) as "Tina's Mother." She also needs a bit more of a conceited arrogance as Ginger in the second act.

Ethel Merman sound-a-like Leigh Bennett is perfectly cast as Lita Encore. She has just the right amount of both brass and class, and belts out the song "I Hate Musicals" as if it were written for her. Jeni Hacker misses some of her comic moments as Louise in the first act, even with "The Pippi Song" in which the bumbling character misspells her own name. She's just not that funny—perhaps she needs to explore being nerdier. However, Hacker is hysterical in the second act as Eve, plowing through badly pronounced phrases in French and mugging the audience on entrances and exits. Sally Bondi is funny in the first act as third grade teacher Miss Thorn, especially in the song "Teaching Third Grade," but her performance in the second act as Miss Block leaves one wondering what her character is really doing there.

Gabriel Zenone deservedly steals the show as Sylvia St. Croix. Costume designer Ellis Tillman has outdone himself in creating high fashion outfits of the time period that make Zenone look not unlike Judy Garland. He really has all the right cuts and lengths smartly matched with hats, purses, shoes and jewelry. Zenone seems to move in them all as comfortably as if they were what he always wears. Though the role was written for a woman, the songs are all in a baritone key. His singing voice is loud and sure, but his comedic timing is surer. He has complete control of his moments with a delivery reminiscent of Bette Davis, and gets every laugh. Most importantly, he does it all without ever giving in to the temptation of acknowledging to the audience that he is after all a man in a dress. What's hard is delineating that it is not a drag performance nor is there humor in his gender bending attire. My thought at the end of this production was "Oh, that is how that role should be done!" Zenone's performance alone is worth the cost of admission.

Ruthless! The Musical! appeared through November 3, 2013, at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse is the nonprofit resident theatre company and managing agent of the historic Miracle Theatre on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Actors' Playhouse, which has brought home 77 regional Carbonell Awards for artistic excellence, is a Florida Presenting Cultural Organization and one of 22 major cultural institutions in Miami-Dade County. In addition to its Mainstage season, Actors' Playhouse offers a year-round season of Musical Theatre for Young Audiences, a National Children's Theatre Festival, a Theatre Conservatory and Summer Camp Program, as well as educational arts outreach programs for underserved youth, and has initiated a "Young Talent Big Dreams" contest for children in partnership with The Children's Trust. Actors' Playhouse is located at 280 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, Florida. Performances are usually Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 pm. Information and tickets may be obtained by contacting the theater at their box office at 305-444-9293, or online at www.actorsplayhouse.org.

Cast:
Sylvia St. Croix: Gabriel Zenone*
Judy Denmark: Amy Miller Brennan*
Tina Denmark: Julia Dale
Miss Thorn/Miss Block: Sally Bondi
Louise Lerman/Eve: Jeni Hacker*
Lita Encore: Leigh Bennett*

Crew:
Director/Musical Staging: David Arisco
Musical Director: Eric Alsford
Additional Musical Staging: Jeni Hacker
Tap Choreography: Nikki Allred
Scenic Design: Tim Bennett
Lighting Design: Luke Klingberg
Sound Design: Alexander Herrin
Costume Design: Ellis Tillman
Stage Manager: Carl Waisanen*

*Designates a member of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.


Photo: Alberto Romeu


See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- John Lariviere



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