- 7/13/15

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Ruthless! The Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Peter Land, Tori Murray, and Kim Maresca.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

That fame makes monsters of us all, even at the most inconsequential levels, is the closest thing there is to a moral in Ruthless!, the musical by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird that just opened in revival at St. Luke's Theatre. Well, okay, that's not entirely accurate. Just as prominent a message is that the crisply pressed entertainment we now enjoy ain't got nothing on the hard-boiled viciousness of yore, and that the easiest way to howl today is to remember just how far old stories could go when it seemed as though they couldn't go very far at all.

That's why, like the vampy, bulging-eyed comedies of Charles Busch, Ruthless! is, uh, ruthlessly stuffed with references to its over-the-top spiritual predecessors. There's a domineering stage mother who doesn't mince words at all, and quotes Gypsy's Madame Rose verbatim. (The other domineering stage mother on hand, it should be mentioned, doesn't quote Rose.) One act looks as though it was carpet-bombed by The Bad Seed, the other by All About Eve. The likes of Shirley Temple, Astrid Lindgren, and heaven knows how many other Golden-Age names are paid homage, making it clear that librettist-lyricist-director Paley and composer Laird have been paying close attention the past 70 years.

Their love for their subjects is evident from the get-go, when the fabulously chic and intrepid (one might say crazed) manager Sylvia St. Croix (naturally played by a male actor, in this case Peter Land) enters the home of Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca) to talk about her daughter, Tina. Sylvia, you see, encountered the 10-year-old's voracious talent the week before at the Rolling Hills Twilight Home for the Elderly and was so taken with her that she wants to book her on more gigs. The precocious Tina (Tori Murray), whose wavy locks and Technicolor dress (the raucous costumes are by Nina Vartanian) have rendered her more than a little Stepford, knows she was born to entertain and will do anything necessary to attain the stardom she craves.

Exactly how far that anything goes is the point of the show's first, and better, half, when Tina, under Sylvia's tutelage, becomes understudy to the lead in her school's play, the insipid Pippi in Tahiti, then takes over after the star dies under, shall we say, mysterious circumstances. That Tina just happened to witness. Before she came home with the competitor girl's red, pigtailed wig. Such events turn out to be barely consequential in the eyes of Sylvia or Judy, when stardom and its associated rewards are put on the line, of course. How could it be otherwise? Everyone is already so far gone—and positioned to go further still, straight to the bottom—that there's nothing for the scheming nasties to do but bear figurative claws and draw literal blood.

Though Ruthless! has been revamped to play in a single intermissionless stretch, it retains the feel and the pacing of the two-act form from its 1992 Off-Broadway premiere (which starred Laura Bell Bundy as Tina with—the mind reels—Britney Spears as her understudy), and this is not to the work's credit. Everything we see after Tina "pays" for what she's done (to the extent anyone does), strains visibly, and shows that excess, too, can be taken to excess. Except during the truly crazy final few minutes, the plot gets away from Paley and fails to capitalize on the endlessly inventive energy that fuels the show so capably early on. Any marksman, however adept, can run out of targets. Even the set (by Josh Iacovelli, who also did the lights) feels tacky, and not in the good way you might expect.

Also a problem is that the songs, if fine on their own terms, don't capture the same zaniness that characterizes the better stretches of the book. Only the opener, "Tina's Mother," is completely successful, because it relies on backhanded, subtextual methods to make its points and get its laughs. Judy, gloriously vapid as she trills her way through a Donna Reed-y melody, has sacrificed the whole of her own identity to build a life for her daughter, and is unaware of the gap that's leaving in her own soul—an opening that will have to be filled eventually. Most of the rest is either generic show-biz stuff ("You can have it all, you've got talent / Life can be a ball if you've got talent"), or one-joke extravagances that are satisfied with titters rather than explosions ("My gorge starts to rise / When a nun starts to tap / And wouldn't you just love to slap / Maria von Trapp? / I hate musicals!").

Nor does the hilarity extend much beyond the central trio. Tina's teacher (Andrea McCullough), Judy's endlessly griping theatre-critic mother (Rita McKenzie), and the other characters (the original Pippi and a woman who's planning some else's downfall, both played by Tracy Jai Edwards) are sources of easy comedy that amuses only on the surface. The three performers do what they can with the parts, but Paley has not helped them find a realistic boisterousness on par with the leads.

Land is delectable as the distant, single-minded Sylvia, embodying every stitch of her ramshackle glamour and milking her myriad secrets for all they're worth (and then some). And Maresca fully occupies the vacant Judy, finding ever-surprising new ways to integrate her whiplash-causing changes of mind and fortune into one cohesive whole. Both are impressively realized noir portrayals that let no gag go unmolested. Though Murray states in her Playbill bio that she's only 10 years old, she already boasts the chops of a seasoned pro, with a knockout voice and (ahem) a killer comic sense that ensure she's every bit Land and Maresca's equal.

That's no small achievement, especially given Murray's illustrious forebears in the part. This production may lack all the guts it ought to have, but Murray possesses them in spades. One hopes she doesn't turn out quite like Tina, but she's good enough that the others involved with this Ruthless! may want to watch their backs, just in case.

Ruthless! The Musical
Through September 12
St. Luke's Theatre, 308 West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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