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Theatre in Review: Ruthless! (St. Luke's Theatre)

Tori Murray, Kim Maresca. Photo: Carol Rosegg

It's summer camp season, what with Mrs. Smith's Broadway Cat-Tacular having had its brief, gaudy hour Off Broadway and now a revival of Ruthless!, a musical spoof best described as The Bad Seed meets Gypsy. Ruthless! originally ran the better part of a year back in 1992-93 and is semi-famous for having employed a pair of understudies named Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. That production was far more stylish than the slapdash, hit-or-miss handling it gets here, but I'd be lying if I said the totally game cast doesn't harvest a fair number of big laughs out of material that, by all rights, should have been farmed to death decades ago.

The production's secret weapon is Tori Murray as Tina Denmark, a four-foot-two bundle of dynamite -- and, if you're not careful, she'll explode in your face. Entering in a red pinafore that Shirley Temple would have discarded as too showy, she launches into something called "Born to Entertain," an eerily hilarious display of precocious pizazz. ("How ya doin'?" she asks the audience. "That's a rhetorical question.") Having acquired a fiercely ambitious manager, she snaps, "I've had a normal childhood. It's time to move on." Indeed, all Tina needs is her own grit and the assistance of "the casting agent in the sky."

Her immediate goal is to land the lead in the school production, Pippi in Tahiti, and when it goes to a schoolmate, the sight of Tina reclining, open-mouthed in shock, attended by a covey of fretful adults, is arguably the funniest thing in the show. ("That girl was too Jewish-looking to play Pippi," she growls, clouds of menace forming over her.) When the rival is found, strangled with her own jump rope, and Tina is suddenly in possession of a Pippi Longstocking wig, her fast-tracked trip to Broadway is interrupted by a lengthy detour to the "Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues." Tina will stop at nothing, not even murder, to secure her place in the show business firmament, and Murray, who, at ten, is already blessed with crack timing, brings her to self-aggrandizing, blood-curdling life.

Adding to the comic mayhem is Kim Maresca as Tina's empty-headed mother, Judy, who fears that if the little girl is taken up by show folk, she'll be "doomed to a life of booze, pills, and heavy meals late at night." Later, when Judy gets the stage bug herself, she turns into a hard-boiled Broadway diva, lounging around her penthouse in a silver spangled miniskirt and furtively snorting bursts of Lemon Pledge. Andrea McCullough provides her own style of fun as Tina's mannish third-grade teacher -- "I know what you're thinking, Mrs. Denmark, and I'm not a lesbian." -- and the hapless director of that Pippi Longstocking debacle. Rita McKenzie, best known for her Ethel Merman tribute shows, applies her vocal brass section to the weirdly irrelevant role of Judy's mother, a take-no-prisoners theatre critic, ramming home a so-so comedy song, "I Hate Musicals!", until it looks like a showstopper. Tracy Jai Edwards is fun both as Tina's innocent victim and as a personal assistant who craves the spotlight for herself.

Adding a little diversity to this Off Broadway hen party is Paul Pecorino, swanning around in floor-length velvet gowns and Joan Crawford wigs as Sylvia St. Croix, Tina's manager and all-around woman of mystery. Pecorino is a late addition to the cast, replacing Peter Land, who took ill just before opening night, and although he has the idea of the character down pat, he's not as amusing as his garish getups and calculated over-emoting lead you to expect. Then again, Sylvia's character often seems shoehorned into an entertainment that sometimes suffers from a kind of attention deficit syndrome. Joel Paley's book keeps the gags -- good, bad, and indifferent -- coming in the hope that enough of them will stick, but his plotting is all over the place. The first act has its flattish stretches but is fairly consistent; after intermission, the Bad Seed story line is almost totally jettisoned for a rehash of All About Eve, an approach that proves damaging: Tina drops out of the action for far too long, taking the laughs with her. Even with its notably brief running time, the second act is padded with reprises -- there's even a joke about it -- and a faintly desperate, how-do-we-end-this-thing air. The songs -- lyrics by Paley, music by Marvin Laird -- lean too hard on the comic possibilities of venal sentiments delivered with uptempo razzmatazz, but, aside from those already mentioned, I also liked "Tina's Mother," a dizzy account of Judy's housewifely routine; "To Play this Part," in which Tina claims the role of Pippi for herself; and the title tune, which notes that you, too, can rise to the top using stab-in-the-back tactics.

The production design -- scenery and lighting by Josh Iacovelli, costumes by Nina Vartanian -- is on a par with other productions playing St. Luke's, where the low budgets are all too obvious. Consistency is not valued: For a show set in the here and now, Judy is dressed like a Mad Men-era housefrau and Sylvia's outfits appear to have been pulled from the costume racks at Warner Brothers, circa 1945. I hope the wigs are meant to be fake-looking, because they certainly are. John Grosso's sound is much too loud; such over-the-top antics don't require such an intense level of amplification.

Still, Paley's direction has its inventive touches -- when, during the overture, one of the musicians calls on the audience to sing along to songs nobody knows; when Judy gratefully accepts a feather boa, falling from above, before launching into a song about her life in the gilded Broadway cage; and in scenes of rapid-fire dialogue that have the right screwball comedy spirit. I must add that, at the performance I attended, the audience heartily enjoyed themselves. Ruthless! could use more style and lots more discipline, but, as light-headed summer fun, it just about makes the grade; after all, nobody says no to Tina Denmark. -- David Barbour

(5 August 2015)

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