By Michael Hillyer
You would have to be a cereal box not to find something to laugh at during this revival of “Ruthless,” with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird, directed by Joel Paley at St. Luke’s Theatre. This shameless musical spoof of backstage Hollywood mother-daughter potboilers (The Bad Seed, Mildred Pierce, Gypsy, All About Eve) is all about getting the laugh. Every joke, pun, double entendre, groaner, smart rejoinder, melodramatic non-sequitur, ridiculous mood swing and plot reversal in their bag of tricks are employed by this clever creative team in their pursuit of laughs, and they are relentless. Yes, ruthless. Even the songs are funny, and unrelentingly brassy. It doesn’t stop. After about an hour of this, you may want to cry, “Stop for a minute. Sing a ballad. Breathe.” But there is no respite from the merciless cascade of silliness in “Ruthless.”
Spoofing melodrama and show business simultaneously, and acted in a high camp style pioneered by Charles Ludlam and perfected by Charles Busch, this production goes all-out. Everyone in this talented company is going so far over the top that by the time they come down, some of them are on the other side. Not only does everyone have a secret to hide, naturally, but pretty much everyone turns out to be somebody else. I will spare you a recounting of the silly contrivances that pass here for a plot; it simply isn’t important, and you wouldn’t believe me. The fun lies in watching how far each character is willing to go in order to advance their career in show business, and yes, murder is right there on the table. It is also entertaining to see how far these actors are able to stretch into the preposterous limits of their characterizations. By the end of the show, the curtains framing the stage are simply in tatters.
Chief culprit in the drapery-shredding department is Peter Land, whose bravura characterization of Sylvia St. Croix seems to have stepped straight out of a BBC War picture with cocktail glass in hand; one part scotch, one part Noel Coward and two parts Rosalind Russell. He is also possessed of an excellent singing voice, and handles Sylvia’s musical numbers with panache. Kim Maresca (Judy Denmark) begins the evening as a benign, nurturing stage mother but ends it as a domineering Broadway star bent on destroying her own daughter’s career. This impossible character arc takes her from Donna Reed Plus to an out-of-control Mama Rose in less than sixty minutes, but Ms. Maresca delivers all of it, and she sings beautifully. Tori Murray, as the ambitious child star, Tina, has remarkable vocal and dancing skills equal to the daunting task of spoofing Shirley Temple well, and she has a natural, winning presence which goes a long way toward making this murderously ambitious caricature likeable. Rita McKenzie provides what amounts to a star turn as Lita Encore, theatre critic extraordinaire, and she delivers the show’s musical comedy highlight, “I Hate Musicals” with the throwaway gusto of Ethel Merman. Andrea McCullough (Miss Thorn) and Tracy Jai Edwards (Eve/Louise) put their ample talents to work in the service of multiple roles, and there is an unexpected cameo appearance of Tina just back from the slammer, in what has to be the funniest entrance of the season. Josh Iacovelli’s serviceable scenic and light designs provide a companionable palette for Nina Vartanian’s excellent costumes, and a pair of versatile keyboards in the pit deliver sufficient musical ballast under the direction of Ricky Romano.
This revival has trimmed the original play’s two acts into an intermission-less ninety minutes, and although I didn’t see the original production, I suspect this one might have benefited from a break midway. “Ruthless” is a non-stop celebration of calculated heartlessness, and that exacts a price later on in the evening, as things spin out of control and the wall-to-wall campiness starts to wear a little thin. Even a show this well-calibrated can’t deliver the yucks all night long. Nevertheless, there is a persistent merriment unleashed in “Ruthless” that winds up carrying the day, and it is infectious enough to float a smile even when the laughs are no longer actually killing people.
“Ruthless!” book and lyrics, Joel Paley, music, Marvin Laird, director, Joel Paley, musical supervisor/arranger, Marvin Laird.
With Peter Land, Kim Maresca, Andrea McCullough, Tracy Jai Edwards, Rita McKenzie, Tori Murray. Set and light design, Josh Iacovelli, Costume design, Nina Vartanian, Sound design, John Grosso, Music direction, Ricky Romano. Presented by Maxine Paul, Evan Sacks and Ken Shur at St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 W 46th St, New York, NY. Call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com