Singing in the Brain
Ruthless! The Musical utilizes themes, quotes and various bits and pieces from All About Eve, The Bad Seed, Gypsy and doubtless a zillion other plays and movies I didn't recognize. "Sing out, Louise," a teacher calls to a child performer; a devilish child offers her mother "a bucket of kisses"; "As God is my witness," the same mother declaims later. The production is filled with huger-than-life actors -- men in drag, hyper-energetic women, a little girl as bouncily irrepressible as a rubber ball -- all of them singing, dancing, strutting, hamming and waggling eyelashes stiff enough to scour saucepans.
Young Tina Denmark, played by Melissa Deni on the night I saw the show, is a cross between Shirley Temple and the Bad Seed. She's discovered by an agent, Sylvia St. Croix (Steven Tangedal in drag). But Tina's '50s-style, cookie-baking, flip-haired and hoop-skirted mother, Judy (Melissa McCarl), would prefer that her daughter settle for a life of domesticity. Tina auditions for the school play, Pippi in Tahiti, but loses the lead to another girl, Louise Lerman -- actually the six-foot-tall Todd Peckham. Our little moppet knows how to handle competition, however, and pretty soon Louise is dangling by the neck from her own jump rope.
You think you know where things are going and settle back to watch Tina claw her way to the top, but the plot isn't so simple. It also involves Judy's adoptive mother, Lita Encore (Sue Leiser), a theater critic whose acerbic review some years ago killed the glamorous Ginger DelMarco, who, it turns out, is the real mother of... But never mind. By the next act, Tina's in a facility for psychopathic ingenues, and mousy Judy has metamorphosed into a glamorous star, complete with penthouse and an envious maid called Eve (Todd Peckham again).
The first act flies. It's so fast and funny that I was sorry when the intermission came. I found the second act a little less involving. Perhaps we've seen the diva act a few too many times. There's also an adoring lesbian reporter, played by Steven W. Miles wearing a doltishly delicious costume. But his/her lines aren't particularly clever, and the character doesn't add much to the plot. Not that it really matters: By the time the little sense Ruthless! ever made has dissolved into a sequence of songs and a welter of improbable climaxes, we're in stitches again.
There are all kinds of priceless comic moments in this show. Melissa McCarl is good throughout, but she's particularly inspired in the first act as the wide-eyed Judy. She's also got one hell of a voice. Melissa Deni's singing is more powerful than pleasing, but what she lacks as a singer, she makes up for as an actress. She has a lot of poise and presence, easily holding her own against a stage full of madly hamming adults, and balancing her characterization of Tina on a knife edge between cute and obnoxious. Steven Miles, playing the teacher Myrna Thorn in the first act, does a terrific rendition of a song about the frustrations of "Teaching Third Grade"; Todd Peckham's Eve has a stage-rocking death scene, and Steven Tangedal's Sylvia is tightly wound, bitter, sophisticated and absurd. My favorite performance, though, is Sue Leiser's Lita Encore, a genuine original: short, buxom and flaxen-haired, with the twinkling smile of a fairy godmother, the practiced kvetch of your Jewish auntie from New York, and a belt that could challenge Ethel Merman's as she delivers the ironically titled "I Hate Musicals."
From the moment you enter the auditorium, you can see that the Theatre Group has a rapport with its patrons. Audience members are relaxed and chatty, clearly anticipating a good time. The actors respond by giving their demented all. One of the reasons theater survives -- despite its time/space limitations as a way of telling stories and the ubiquity of film and television -- is that, for a couple of hours in one small place, it creates a genuine sense of community. And all of the references to bitchy reviewers, indicating actors, dueling stars and theatrical cliches in Ruthless! make the audience voyeurs to the process -- and part of the joke.
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