Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Patrick's review of Guys and Dolls
Which is why I'm in a great mood this morning. Not only did I spend two hours with a smile on my face–and often guffawing loudly–at the opening of Ruthless! at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, I now get to praise it to the moon and encourage you to go see it.
The musical Ruthless! is a silly, campy show (book and lyrics by Joel Paley, music by Marvin Laird) about the lengths to which some people will go to achieve stardom–and the fame, fortune and adulation that go with it. Little Tina Denmark (Melissa Momboisse) is an eight-year-old star in the making. She's got the talent, she's got the drive, and by gum she's going to win the lead role of Pippi Longstocking in her school's production of Pippi in Tahiti no matter what it takes. Although her mother, Judy Denmark (Mary Kalita), does her best to guide her daughter, there's no stopping Tina's drive to follow her dreams. She was born to entertain.
So when Sylvia St. Croix (J. Conrad Frank) pays a call on Tina and Judy, having seen Tina wow the folks at a local senior center, Tina is thrilled to be taken under Sylvia's wing and groomed for stardom. "I'm your Auntie Mame, your Mama Rose," she tells Tina. Despite her rival being cast as Pippi (the drama teacher, Miss Thorn, is played by Hayley Lovgren, who has a big, belting voice, a glare like a phaser set to something above "stun," as well as a tremendous sense of comic timing), Tina will stop at nothing–literally–to take the stage on opening night. And, ultimately, to bring home a Tony.
Lovgren is not alone in boasting top-notch comedic chops. The entire cast is perfectly in synch with each other, and with the terrifically funny lines with which bookwriter Paley has peppered his script. They come one after another, often so quickly that one outburst of laughter melds with the next and the next, barely giving our sore cheeks a chance to recover. Perhaps my favorite of the many stinging lines is in act two when Tina, now a big star, tells Sylvia, "I don't know how to say this. I've outgrown you." Then, after the briefest of beats, "Oh, I do know how to say it."
Directed by Dyan McBride with great respect for the silliness and over-the-top nature of the story, her cast help themselves to every comic opportunity as if the show were an all-you-can-joke buffet. Melissa Momboisse plays Tina to perfection, with a tight smile and cheery attitude that belies the schemer beneath her multiple-petticoated polka-dot skirt. Mary Kalita's take on Judy is that of a Stepford wife crossed with a Martha Stewart superfan–she's the perfect mother and homemaker who just happens to be a tad out of touch with reality. The way she pirouettes and jetés when the doorbell rings is a glorious manifestation of the bubbly nature of her character.
But if anyone steals the show–and everyone in the cast is a potential scene thief–it's J. Conrad Frank and his take on Sylvia St. Croix. Although his performance is eerily similar to his performance as Lily Dare in NCTC's staging of The Confession of Lily Dare, channeling Charles Busch, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford, it matters not a whit. For Frank–in perfect costumes by Wes Crain–seems to have mastered the bitchy, snarky, uber-superior attitude both Lily Dare and Sylvia St. Croix require.
The set, by Matt Owens, is a suburbanite's dream, with curtains that match the couch and–oddly–Judy's skirt. That it transforms completely between acts into a star's dressing room only makes his effort even more impressive.
Ruthless! is a joyous escape into a world where almost no one is truly nice or kind, but are so funny and so much fun to watch that you'd invite them to your next party even if you were worried they'd poison the punch if any your guests were rivals for stardom. Even though critics don't come out the heroes in Ruthless!, this critic is delighted to laud the heroic efforts of each member of the cast and production team. You owe it to yourself not to miss this one.
Ruthless! runs through January 7, 2024, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. No show December 25. Tickets are $25-$65. For tickets and information, please visit NCTCSF.org or by calling 415-861-8972.