Monday, September 19, 2016

RUTHLESS!, farcical romp at Beck, fun, but . . .

Adorable eight-year-old girls are supposed to play with dolls, be obsessed with the color pink, and gossip about their friends on a smart phone.   Right?  Wrong, if you are Tina Denmark.  She wants to be a theatrical star.  Now!  Not later, NOW!  (foot stomp!)  What will she do to get her dream?

As the curtain rises on the musical, Ruthless! (that title alone should warn you of what you are in for), we overhear a conversation between Judy Denmark, a bland housewife, and Sylvia St. Croix, a domineering, conniving “theatrical agent,” discussing Judy’s daughter, Tina.  Sylvia wants Tina to try out for Pippi in Tahiti, her elementary school’s play.  A play written and directed by a has-been, never-was theatrical star, the frustrated third-grade teacher, Miss Thorn.

After a short conflict, Tina gets to tryout but is not cast due to “school politics.”  Louise Lerman is given the lead, with Tina as the understudy.  That is, only after Tina, ever the manipulative actress, “begs nicely and says please.” 

But Louise’s star-power is not for long. 

As any eight-year-old who wants her way MUST do, Tina hangs Louise from the catwalk with a jump rope.  (“But, officer, I was born to play that part.”)  When the crime is discovered, Tina is sent to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues.  (Are you getting the idea that this isn’t the social messaged, Les Miz?)

Enter Lita Encore, Judy’s adoptive mother, and, therefore, Tina’s grandmother.  (Well, kind of.)  She is a viciously negative theatre critic. (Are there any other kind?)  She hates musicals, and was responsible for the suicide of Ruth Del Marco, a Broadway star, who did herself in following a bad review by Lita.  (Sure, blame it on the critic.)

Fast forward---Lita takes in Ruth’s daughter, who turns out to be Judy.  When Judy finds out she is the offspring of a Broadway leading lady, she yells out, “I’m talented!  God help me, I’m talented” and immediately becomes a theatrical star, under the nom-de-plum, Ginger Del Marco.  (Pretty soon you’ll need a score card to keep track of all the characters.)

Tina is released and comes home to Ginger’s fabulous penthouse apartment. (A nice set design by Aaron Benson.)  Mother and daughter vie for the limelight.  Sylvia reveals that she is really Ruth Del Marco (the rumor of her suicide was fabricated by Sylvia).  A struggle follows.  Ginger is shot dead, Tina then shoots Eve and demands the lead in her mother’s next play.  They struggle and Tina is shot dead.  Sylvia comes back to life (hey, this is a farce and the authors needed to wrap this up) and shots Lita.  (Or, something like that happens…who can keep track and it really doesn’t matter anyway.)

Obviously, Ruthless!, which won the New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical, is a farce, a broad farce.  For the ridiculousness to work, the whole show needs to be bizarre.  The comedy needs to be overextended, overdone gestures, overdone makeup and costumes, every character bigger than life.  No realism here.  You have to laugh not only at the lines, but at the characters and their broadly done characterizations.   This is Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, not Spring Awakening.  It’s Something Rotten not New To Normal.  (BTW… Something Rotten is a must see laugh riot that is part of the 2016-2017 Key Bank Broadway Series.)

The Beck production shines on many levels.

Matthew Wright is a cross-dressing wonder as Sylvia St. Croix. (He has great legs which are highlighted by his/her high-heeled shoes.)  With makeup like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and over-extended gestures (circa non-talky movies), and a grating voice, he captures the right tone for farce.  We appropriately laugh with and at him/her. 

Calista Zajac delights as Tina. This is a tiny keg of dynamite who has potential “Broadway star” stamped on her forehead.  She can sing, she can dance, she can act.  She can!

The staging of the songs and dance numbers by Martin Céspedes are Borscht Belt correct (e.g., Danny Kaye, Zero Mostel, and Clevelander Mickey Katz).  He obviously understands farce and how to overplay reality into ridiculousness.

Some of rest of the show is a disconnect.  There are times when director William Roudebush seems to lose track of the need to overdo and things get “real.”  If the cast is not having fun, if the pace isn’t frantic, if the ridiculousness isn’t totally overdone, the mocking of such shows as Gypsy, The Bad Seed and All About Eve, become those shows, and that is not the intent of the authors, Joel Paley (book and lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music).

The rest of the cast (Lindsey Mitchell (Judy Denmark/Ginger DelMarco), Kate Leigh Michalski (Miss Thorn), Brittni Shambaugh Addison (Louise/Eve) and Carla Patroski (Lita) are good.  They have the talent to be great, if they had been let loose to play it bigger than life, play it for laughs.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  Ruthless! will delight many. It is a fun farce.  This production gets it almost right.  With a little more letting loose and playing for laughs, it could have been great.

Ruthless! is scheduled to run through 2016 at Beck Center for the Arts.  For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to
Next at Beck:  Body Awareness, in its regional premiere, by Pulitzer Prize Winner Annie Baker, October 7-November 6, 2016.