The movies did it better. "Women's pictures" such as All About Eve, The Women and even The Bad Seed, for all their melodramatic silliness, at least presented complex and interesting female characters. But Ruthless! The Musical, which is supposed to be a sendup of those Hollywood classics, is about as involving as yesterday's want ads. The Theatre on Broadway's regional premiere coaxes as many laughs as possible, and the highly skilled cast cloaks the lame material with stylish performances. But even if we remember the actors, the play--and all of its tuneless music--is totally forgettable.
The story opens in the living room of Judy Denmark. The proud mother of eight-year-old Tina, Judy chirps a song about maternal bliss as the neighbors call to sing the praises of her precocious daughter. Into this Donna Reed nightmare comes the golden-haired bad seed herself--little Tina is all callous ambition and grotesque manipulation. Talent agent Sylvia St. Croix wants to sign Tina to a contract and make her a star, and that's all the kid's living for. St. Croix comes calling just before Tina's audition for the school play, a part to die--or maybe kill--for. And sure enough, when the child chosen to play Pippi Longstocking suddenly hangs herself, suspicion soon falls on her understudy, Tina.
Meanwhile, Judy discovers the secret of her own origins. Raised by a caustic theater critic, Lita Encore, Judy never knew her real mother--a great actress whom Lita destroyed with one of her reviews. Lita (played with testy chutzpah by Sue Leiser) sings the funniest song of the evening, "I Hate Musicals." As parodistic as the piece is, it's the one that best sums up the experience of this particular musical.
The second act picks up the pace quite a bit as Tina goes to juvenile hall and Judy becomes a Broadway star herself under her given name, Ginger. Her secretary/housekeeper is another aspiring actress (Penny Alfrey shines once again as the alternately unctuous and ruthless Eve) who lies in wait, ready to spring on opportunity, should it knock.
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More revelations about Judy's family history lead to bloodshed as Tina returns to claim more than her fair share of the spotlight. Every cat on that stage claws.
The best thing about the whole show is Steven Tangedal's drag performance as Sylvia St. Croix (he's listed in the program as Felecia La Degnat). Tangedal moves with the elegant ease of a dancer, and his powerful presence--to say nothing of his artfully pursed lips--draws the eye instantly.
Annaleigh Swanson as the horrid little Tina manages to play against her own adorable good looks to create a nasty monster under all those curls. Heather Fortin Rubald makes Judy a Barbie-doll mama--sentimental to the point of imbecility. But she vamps her way through the second act as the egomaniacal Ginger with calculated force, though the music she has to sing doesn't do her voice justice.
Ruthless is supposed to skewer the feminine mystique of films like All About Eve. As paternalistic as those old movies were in their attitudes toward women, however, they actually did have something to say about the dark side of the female experience. Ruthless just seems to hate women. And even that would have been tolerable if only the story weren't such a bore.