Phoenix Theatre inaugurates its new performance space with Ruthless! The Musical. With music by Marvin Laird and book & lyrics by Joel Paley, the show spoofs classic musicals like Gypsy and Mame and movies such as The Bad Seed and All About Eve.
Opening off-Broadway in 1992, the show ran 342 performances. An interesting bit of Broadway trivia, the understudies for the role of Tina, the precocious wanna-be child star, in that original production were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. The show won the 1993 New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.
The musical is an over-the-top comedy and absolutely hysterical. The performances are broadly exaggerated but the talented cast remains true to the style without ever mocking or laughing at the characters they portray. The cast is universally strong in their singing and performances. There is no weak link.
In some ways predictable, the plot is nonetheless enjoyable. Judy Denmark, a perky, unambitious housewife, is the mother of talented eight-year-old Tina. Judy wants her daughter to have a normal childhood but Tina feels she was “born to entertain”. When Tina is cast as the understudy and not in the title role in her school’s third-grade production of Pippi In Tahiti , The Musical she murders her competition by hanging her fellow third-grader from the cat walk with a jump rope. Once the crime is discovered, Tina is sent away to the “Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues”. The school’s name is a reference to Natalie Wood film Inside Daisy Clover, the story of a self-destructive young actor’s rise to stardom.
Through a series of revelations we learn the true identities of Tina’s mother and Grandmother and their relationship to the, it is believed, long-dead Broadway star, Ruth DeMarco. During Tina’s incarceration, Judy becomes a Broadway star. Upon her release, Tina wants to resume her climb to stardom but her mother, who formerly feared the loss of Tina’s childhood innocence, now fears her as a competitor. In an ending that is beyond farcical most of the cast is killed and Tina abandons her dreams of Broadway and heads to Hollywood to find fame and fortune in a television sit-com.
All of the characters in the show are female though, with a nod to shows like those of Charles Busch, one of them is always played by a male actor.
A young women, age 17, was sitting in front of us. Hearing that I’d never seen the show before, she informed me it was her favorite musical; EVER! I can’t say that. But I am intrigued by the show’s success even with audiences who are unaware of the frequent musical and dialog references to classic shows. It works on that level as well.
If one is only casually interested in theater, Ruthless! The Musical will be an amusing and pleasant way to spend a couple hours. For fans of old movies and classic musicals it is an absolute hoot! The show runs through September 29th.