Viva la Diva

Ruthless! the Musical is a lovable, loving sendup.

Little Tina Denmark was born with talent. No one knows where it came from -- her mother is a perky, cookie-baking,' 50s-style housewife, her father always away on unspecified business -- but dancing and singing are in her blood. So when Tina loses the lead in the school musical, Pippi in Tahiti, to Louise Lerman, it's clear that the poor poppet is justified in any steps she takes to remedy the situation -- including murder. Soon Louise is swinging from her own jump rope, and Tina is playing Pippi. When Tina's mother, Judy, finds the bright-red Pippi wig in her child's book bag, she's horrified. But then she discovers that her own parentage promises thespian greatness, and pretty soon she's elbowing Tina out of the way and into a camp for psychotic tots so that she can take center stage herself.

Once she's a star, however, Judy has to deal with two overwhelming mothers; a spying newspaper reporter; a beautiful maid, Eve, who's intent on stealing her place in the spotlight; and the eventual return of an apparently chastened Tina. Is it any wonder that mayhem ensues?

Ruthless! the Musical is an extended piece of camp, a funny, silly pastiche of moments from Gypsy, The Bad Seed, All About Eve and every pre-'60s musical with a larger-than-life female star that you can remember. The show is full of divas and would-be divas, and each of them eventually gets a big number. In addition to Tina and Judy, there's Sylvia, the talent agent who takes over Tina's career after spotting her performance at an old-folks' home; the third-grade teacher who once yearned for stardom but is now stuck grading papers; Judy's own vicious theater-critic mother; and the scheming Eve. The songs, by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird, are tuneful, clever and full of references to famous Broadway scores.

Brian Mallgrave and Courtney Lorenz in Ruthless! 
the Musical.
Brian Mallgrave and Courtney Lorenz in Ruthless! the Musical.

Under the direction of Nick Turner, Nonesuch Theatre Company has mounted a highly entertaining version of Ruthless!, full of madly hamming actors and great voices. Courtney Lorenz doesn't quite have the pipes or the dance moves for Tina, but she does have an evil-eyed charm and enough stage presence to more than hold her own among the adults. Sylvia St. Croix is played by Brian Mallgrave in drag. He's sometimes imperious, sometimes viciously sullen and sometimes sly, and he provides a strong baritone to contrast with all the mezzos and sopranos in the place. Mallgrave is a scene-stealer who could easily make off with the evening, but Gina Schuh-Turner is a match for him as Judy Denmark, prissing through the first act in her belled-out skirt with its gauzy little apron, strutting her stuff as the renamed Ginger DelMarco in act two. Schuh-Turner has a huge, bright voice, perfect poise and perfect timing.

But there are star turns everywhere. Rachel McGaha Miller is a knockout as Eve. Playing theater critic Lita Encore, Nancy Conover delivers the hilarious "I Hate Musicals" in an Ethel Merman belt, and makes it look easy. Britta Risner has the right idea as the neurotic teacher, and she does a terrific version of "Teaching Third Grade," but she's sometimes a bit too twitchy. I couldn't tell which of the musical jokes were woven into the script and which were improvisations by musical director Troy Schuh on the piano, but his fluid and humorous playing added greatly to the production.

Nonesuch, which has been working in the inviting jewel of a space vacated last year by Bas Bleu, is apparently accustomed to presenting far tamer and more conventional fare than Ruthless!; the company has just completed a run of Nunsense that filled the house for six solid months. Ruthless!, meanwhile, is having trouble drawing an audience, and as a result, plans for Forever Plaidare in the works. This is a familiar story: Boulder's Dinner Theatre seems to have retreated to safe, well-trod ground after a dazzling production of Cabaret (which also starred Mallgrave) failed to fill the house. Are local viewers really this timid? It's enough to drive a critic into a diva-sized tantrum.

Catch Ruthless! while you can. It's loads of fun, self-conscious and self-referential, both a sendup and an act of homage by authors who clearly adore old musicals.

 
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