Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Truth be told, there is little "normal" in Marvin Laird (music) and Joel Paley's (lyrics and book) Ruthless!. Taking a parodied, film-noir approach to spoofing Broadway musicals–especially Gypsy and Mame–Ruthless! also finds plenty of fodder in films such as All about Eve and The Bad Seed, as well as in 1950s TV sitcoms like "The Donna Reed Show." The 1992 Off-Broadway musical is now running in a wonderfully zany, campy, totally uproarious production by Los Altos Stage Company. Even casual fans of Broadway or Hollywood will have a heyday trying to identify dozens of song and scene references from film, stage, and TV as they also thoroughly relish the musical prowess and comic antics of the fine Los Altos Stage cast assembled. To top it all off, even the Bard himself will be the focus of parody in the silly and surprising final moments of the two-hour-plus evening.
As soon as little Tina makes her grand entrance home from school (always appearing in full stage face and presence), her opening "Born to Entertain" fast convinces us that she "was born to amuse from the tip of my nose to the tap of my shoes." Penelope DaSilva sings with sparkling effervescence as she twirls and taps across her living room floor, her Tina quickly reminding us in not-so-subtle references of young Louise in Gypsy while also belting with the amazing clarity and volume we associate with Annie (in Annie). However, that initial, little-kid innocence soon begins to fade and then totally to disappear when she hears from her teacher that she did not get the lead in the school musical, with her response being, "Are you fucking kidding me?" It does not take long for her ten-year-old rival, Louise, to have a Tina-induced final encounter with a jump-rope that elevates Tina from understudy to star. Penelope DaSilva is indeed one of the evening's prime stars playing the darlingly perky, but deadly, pesky Tina.
Equally perky and with a big-cheeked smile that seems never to leave her face is Tina's mom, Judy Denmark. Clara Walker sparkles in her opening number, "Tina's Mother," singing about the joys of being a stereotypical 1950s mother and housewife. In her pearls, flowered dress flowing in peeping petticoats, and six-inch high heels, she dances with her dust mop as she sings with a voice beautifully melodious of how thankful she is to be Tina's mother. But in this deliciously twisted musical, where good and innocent is never quite as pure as it first seems, Judy has her own Broadway opportunity, resulting in a personality transformation that provides Clara Walker with a grand opportunity to display Judy's pompous and pretentious (and evil) side as Tony-winning star Ginger Del Marco–all to the laughing delight of us as audience.
In this wacky musical, there are yet more eccentric characters brimming with quirk. Sara Kuenstler hilariously serves up a frustrated third-grade schoolmarm, Myrna Thorne, who is never too far from her hidden flask of whiskey or her regrets of not making it on Broadway. ("The only roles I got were onion rolls at the deli.") In the middle of her solo, "Teaching Third Grade," she undergoes her own personality split as she moves from mentor of young stage stars to sing with increasing disdain about her daily dose of "noses runny, noses bleedy, little runts so bloody needy." With decoratively placed pencils in her hair and a flask tucked in her waist, Sara Kuenstler's Miss Thorne may not be everyone's idea of an ideal teacher, but in the world of Ruthless!, she is perfectly cast.
Arriving for the world premiere of Pippi is New York's famed but notorious theatre critic Lita Encore, mother to adopted Judy and grandmother to Tina. Lita's reputation as a Broadway premiere-killer is well known and feared, and God forbid the show to be reviewed is a musical. Darlene Batchelder receives one of the night's most sustained audience accolades after she entertains us with an Ethel Merman style rendition of "I Hate Musicals." Often half-singing, half-speaking in smoky, gravely vocals, she reserves the trademark Merman blast for Lita's grand Act One departure. She returns in Act Two, providing one of several revealed secrets that will upend and add more hilarity to the evening's proceedings.
While Ruthless! was originally written only for a full cast of women, from the beginning the role of somewhat-sleazy, manipulative, and sensationally seductive talent agent Sylvia St. Croix has been acted in drag. Nathan Anthony Belara utilizes to the hilt his tall, slender stature to capitalize on every diva move and motion possible as Sylvia sings "Talent" with mezzo-soprano richness while her long legs extend and her long arms fling and flip with fury. Sylvia's mission is to make Tina a star–"I'm your Auntie Mame! Your Mama Rose!" With an air of her own love of the spotlight, she sashays in with the intent to stay as a permanent fixture in the Denmark home, bringing her own dark secret to one day be uncovered.
Rounding out this laugh-inducing cast is Milan Whitfield as Act One's dorky, doomed Louise (whose miscasting as the Pippi star is due to her parents' wealth) and as Act Two's Eve, a plotting-for-stardom assistant to Judy's transformed Broadway persona, Ginger Del Marco.
Besides commanding the keys as he magnificently plays Marvin Laird's score, music director Randall Watts rises from time to time from behind his piano to deliver, with a twinkle in his eye and a smirk of his face, a number of one-liners in a variety of parts.
Adding to the evening's humor and fun are the wildly imaginative, 1950s-screaming costumes of Issac Booth. Whether the furs, glitzy turban, and sleek dress of Sylvia; the pearls and petticoat, '50s-sitcom attire of Judy; or the designer plaid-and-wool ensemble of Lita Encore topped with a feathered hat–each character's attire is an array of tongue-in-cheek.
Similarly, Gary Landis's scenic design is fun filled, with its sharply slanted angles of wall-and-door cut-outs signaling the off-kilter humor of the evening, while the props of Erica Racz help populate scenes with fifties favorites and with groaner jokes on their own (like the line of needing to go "cold turkey from smoking" leading to a cooked but chilled Tom being presented on a tray). The entire set is like that of a sitcom being filmed for TV, with the live audience that responds obediently to the big-lit "Applause" lights. Along with providing TV studio flare, Carol Fischer's lighting also has its own spoofed film-noir moments, with all-red spots flooding a suddenly darkened stage in repeated moments of a cast frozen in fake fear.
Gary Ferguson directs and choreographs, adding his own flair for camp and parody all along the way. The only times the pace slows a bit is when scenes are shifted to places other than Judy/Ginger's apartments, with a red curtain somewhat clumsily appearing, accompanied by an annoyingly repetitive set of notes coming from the piano. Attempts at using shadowed action scenes behind the red curtain also did not always work on opening night.
But, overall, there is much to keep one's attention glued to the foible-filled twists and turns that bring tons of laughs in Los Altos Stage Company's delightful Ruthless!. Indeed, as the cast sings in a rousing finale, "The key to success is Ruthlessness!"
Ruthless! runs through May 15, 2022, in production by Los Altos Stage Company in the Barn Theatre, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. For tickets and information, please visit losaltosstage.org.