Sadly, there has never been any certified research on the funny bone, exactly where it is and how one can go about tickling it. But when researchers do this study, they may find the musical Ruthless! sitting nearby spouting a smart-ass remark. Ruthless! is now on the boards at the Beck Center and it hit virtually every square centimeter of my funny bone.
This over-the-top exercise, featuring book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird, happily slaps together references from iconic shows ranging from Mame to All About Eve, and never stops for a moment to catch its breath. And thanks to beautifully controlled performances by the entire cast under the direction of William Roudebush, it all works with the tight precision of a well-oiled laugh machine.
Since I'm about to gush, please be prepared. (I'd advise spreading a plastic drop cloth, this could get messy.) This campy send-up of Broadway and film begins with the premise that a maniacal lust for success in showbiz is ingrained early on. In this case, it's a third grader named Tina who is certain that she is destined for stardom. And her nicely domesticated mom, Judy, is just happy to answer the phone for her popular little girl as the adorable tyke dances and sings around the house.
That lasts for about thirty seconds, until Sylvia St. Croix knocks on the front door. Played in true camp style by a man (Matthew Wright), St. Croix vamps into their lives and immediately starts planning Tina's career as a star. And when it's revealed that the school musical about Pippi Longstocking is coming up, Tina is ready to do anything to get the lead role. As the little diva elucidates, "If I sound desperate, it's because/All I want—No!—all I NEED is applause!"
So off Tina goes to the audition, but she's beat out by a taller, awkward girl named Louise (whose parents apparently bribed the drama teacher). Crushed, Tina returns home to bathe her sorrows. But Sylvia begs the drama teacher Miss "No, I'm Not a Lesbian" Thorn (a hilarious Kate Leigh Michalski) to let Tina be the understudy. Now, Tina's only a heartbeat away from the role should, ahem, anything happen to lead actress. This situation is deftly resolved when Louise (Brittni Shambaugh Addison) is reportedly found hanging by the neck from a jump rope attached to a catwalk high above the stage.
Along the way, Judy's mother shows up to encourage Tina on her trek to stardom, and Carla Petroski nails the show-stopping number "I Hate Musicals," which is highlighted by lines such as, "My gorge starts to rise when a nun starts to tap/And wouldn't you just love to slap Maria Von Trapp?"
This is just the beginning of the comic mayhem that infuses this rollicking musical with giggles and gore. It is gloriously unrepentant about how it steals themes, characters and lines from past entertainments, and that makes it a treasure trove for those (you know who you are) who glory in identifying such references.
Of course, this could all collapse in a heap of overly cute machinations if it weren't performed with style and discipline. And the Beck cast delivers in all cases. As Sylvia, Wright is pure delight as he embellishes his lines with a deep baritone growl to emphasize this woman's serious intent. Sashaying about in a variety of dynamic dresses designed by costumer Aimee Kluiber, Wright serves as narrator to hold the proceedings together.
As Tina's mother Judy, Lindsey Mitchell hits the perfect note as she begins the show with a vapid emptiness, declaring her delight in being "Tina's Mother." But Judy later undergoes a transformation when her parentage is revealed and she learns she is actually the daughter of the famed performer Ruth Del Marco. In the second act, Judy takes on a whole new persona, in a completely redecorated home, as the arrogant, Tony-winning star Ginger Del Marco.
This enables the writers to introduce Ginger's aide Eve, a not-at-all hidden reference to the cagey assistant in the flick All About Eve. Addison fashions a creepy turn as Eve as she tries to inhabit Ginger's life. Meanwhile, Tina has been found guilty of murder and is put away in the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues.
In the role of Tina, Calista Zajac is enormously entertaining without ever getting on your nerves as child actors are wont to do. She can sing and even belt, and she has some dandy comic timing.
Indeed, every aspect of this production is spot-on, with the three keyboards under the direction of Larry Goodpaster providing all the accompaniment that is required. In fact, this show is so amusing I will personally refund the ticket price for anyone who is not totally satisfied with this show*.
Ruthless! definitely earns its exclamation point!
(*No, I won't.)
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