reviewed by Larry Adams

“Life’s a bitch, and it starts in the third grade.”- Miss Thorn, school teacher and frustrated former actress – Ruthless! The Musical

Eight year-old precocious talent Tina Denmark has a problem. Desperate to launch her way along a meteoric path to show business fame and fortune (“I’ve already had a normal childhood- it’s time to move on”), she’s lost her chance at the lead role in her grade school’s production of Pippi in Tahiti. Somehow, despite asking nicely and saying “please,” she has managed to wrangle her way only as far as understudy to her untalented but well-connected classmate, Louise Lehrman. Now Tina is doomed to watch her rival take her rightful place in the limelight… Unless…

So begins the hilarious 1992 Off-Broadway sardonic send up of theater, actors and wannabes known as Ruthless! The Musical, Actors Theatre of Indiana’s third show of their 2018-2019 season. Set in a vaguely 1950s and 60s-ish noir universe spritzed lightly with humorous anachronisms, this campy, musical mashup of the cinema’s Golden Age classics The Bad Seed and All About Eve mixes high energy musical numbers with rapid fire witty dialogue for an evening of dark- sometimes extremely dark- laughs that, though not hitting ALL the marks, is well worth the price of admission- and maybe even a second look to catch what you missed while you were laughing the first time around!

Nya Skye Beck stars as the precocious Tina Denmark
in ATI’s production of “Ruthless! The Musical”

One of ATI’s three founders, Judy Fitzgerald, leads the fairly well-balanced ensemble with a commanding performance in the somewhat bipolar role of Judy Denmark: bland, ditzy mother of Tina and housewife of perennially absent husband “Fred” (or “Ted” or “Phil” or something) in the first act, and conniving, back-stabbing Broadway diva in the second. Co-founder Cynthia Collins absolutely nails it with her hysterical take on the aforementioned Miss Thorn, coping with her crushed dreams of stardom while simultaneously trying to convince herself that she’s landed in a rewarding profession down here on Earth with the rest of us plebs.

Ball State grad Laura Sportiello makes the most of arguably the least flashy role(s) in the production, somehow singing and dancing appropriately poorly as the untalented Louise in Act One (whereas that sort of thing comes natural to me, it’s truly gotta be challenging for a trained and talented actress), then shining as the not-so-subtly named Eve in Act Two’s “Penthouse Apartment” number. Suzanne Stark, though not quite as Ethel Mermany as the “I Hate Musicals” joke in Act Two would seem to call for (a song that, while a bit too long and self-aware, is completely worth it just for its “How Do You Handle a Problem Like Maria?” gag), still impresses as acid-tongued theater critic Lita Encore.

from left: Judy Fitzgerald (Judy Denmark), Nya Skye Beck (Tina Denmark),
and John Vessels (Sylvia St. Croix) appear together in ATI’s
production of “Ruthless! The Musical”

The juiciest roles of the show are those of little Tina Denmark and her unscrupulous manager, Sylvia St. Croix, played with show-stopping performances by Nya Skye Beck and John Vessels respectively. Although originally written for six women, Ruthless! has made somewhat of a tradition of casting a man as St. Croix ever since Joel Vig landed the role in the original Off-Broadway production. Putting a man in drag for some cheap laughs might seem a bit of a hackneyed cliché in theater, especially when it’s just the sort of thing you’re trying to spoof, but it really works in this case. Vessels pulls off the characterization without going over the top, and his vocals are precisely what the part requires. Combining spot-on comic timing with pitch-perfect expressions and body language, he chalks up some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Most impressive, however, is real-life fourth grader Nya Skye Beck, whose acting, vocal and dancing talents rival those of her fictional theatrical prodigy. Ms. Beck soars through what is at times a difficult musical score (handled adroitly by the instrumental accompaniment of Keith Potts, Greg Wolff and Greg Gegogeine), and is absolutely convincing as the poster child for the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues. Her parents should be afraid. Very afraid. (Just kidding. I expect to see her star in the entertainment world rising brightly in the years to come, even without resorting to homicide.)

Cynthia Collins portrays Miss Thorn in ATI’s
production of “Ruthless! The Musical”

And finally, I’d be remiss without noting that a Mr. Sherman Burdette, in an uncredited cameo, pulled down some righteous laughs from all the way up in the cheap seats opening night. Quite frankly, I didn’t recognize him, but the elderly lady seated next to me seemed quite excited to seehim, pointing him out to me several times both before and during his performance. Apparently some sort of animal charisma thing. Maybe he could land a television gig somewhere. A local morning news program, perhaps.

For an actor, the temptation with parody is to play the material too broadly, to reach further and further for laughs until it’s just too much, and the whole, admittedly flimsy house of cards upon which the genre is built simply collapses. I credit co-directors William Jenkins and Matthew Reeder for keeping the cast reined in, as well as for the wonderful comic flow that runs through their production.

Suzanne Stark makes her ATI debut as theater critic Lita Encore
in ATI’s production of “Ruthless! The Musical”

By spoofing theater and theatrical critics, however, Ruthless! sets itself up for some criticism of its own, and unfortunately it serves up more than a few softball targets. It’s not just that the script can be a bit too Inside Baseball- although it can and sometimes is. (“Write what you know” can often be taken to extremes by playwrights, to the detriment of their audiences.) No, the primary problem with this type of humor is that the joke can start to wear a little thin, and Ruthless! comes dangerously close to that as early as the end of the first act. The scene and entire PLOT change in the second act do little more than point this out, and, although none of the songs are particularly likely to end up on American Top 40, by the time we reach Judy/Ginger’s “Totally Forgettable Song on the Piano Top” (not its real name), it starts to feel like a Saturday Night Live skit that’s gone on a bit too long. Ironically, the show hits its low near the end of the second act with the surprisingly uninspired and seemingly obligatory title song “Ruthless!” which, though gamely slogged through by the all-in cast, feels as if the writers were just phoning it in by that point. Fortunately, a high-spirited ending (with one particular actor’s death scene featuring a silent, theater in-joke that was Totally Worth It – I Don’t Care if ANYbody Else Got It) redeems the evening just before the curtain figuratively falls. Despite these few shortcomings of its book and lyrics, Ruthless! The Musical proves a welcome change of pace from the tried and sometimes tired standards that make the rounds year after year, as well as just a great evening full of laughs. Sure, it may not be Les Miserable, but at times, it absolutely kills! (Yeah, okay, sorry about that.)

Ruthless! The Musical continues at ATI’s Studio Theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel through February 17th. You can get information about the schedule and tickets by calling 317.843.3800 or by logging on at http://www.atistage.org .

  • – photos by Ed Stewart & Philip Paluso
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