In the Ruthless! world where little girls break out into song when strangers pay a visit, and show business aspirations are passed down through the genetic code of some wacky dames, hilarity ensues.
A sharp, funny and tuneful mash-up of all things show-biz and camp, Ruthless! The Musical is a hoot. Escapism with an arched eyebrow and cheap wigs. This is a little musical that sends up famous musicals – Gypsy, Applause, your child’s 3rd grade show – along with such cult classics as The Bad Seed, and a couple of Joan Crawford C-pictures for good measure. If this sounds like your cup of spiked tea, head on over to Creative Cauldron in Falls Church and meet the tiny but mighty cast of Ruthless!
The show itself has been around since the early 1990’s where it was an early credit of some pretty big stars – Broadway’s Laura Bell Bundy, Hollywood’s Natalie Portman, and pop star Britney Spears. One suspects it rolled around in the brain of Joel Paley and Marvin Laird for years. Book writer and lyricist Paley started with the psychological thriller The Bad Seed, about a homicidal grade school girl who knows how to get her way, and put theatrical spin on it, including elements of Gypsy (domineering stage mother, plus a talented tyke), All About Eve (sneaky, covetous assistant), The Valley of the Dolls (younger starlet overcoming more mature stage star), and even The Women (bitchy banter).
Laird – the longtime music director for Bernadette Peters – provided snappy tunes that pastiche everything from charm songs to the most insipid vocals from children’s theatre but all in the service of adding to the campy, trampy fun of the parody piece.
Ripped from the collective, TV families of old, we meet Judy Denmark, otherwise known as “Tina’s mother,” the uber-talented third grader who wants to sing and tap her way into the hearts of America. Judy is right out of the June Cleaver mold, having very little brains or identity past being Tina’s mother. Or does she? (Cue musical sting!) Like just about everyone in Ruthless!, Judy is not who she thought she was. Neither is the super-agent and children’s talent scout Sylvia St. Croix, who exudes a high class, haughty vibe, while handing out mini-bottles of liquor as her calling card. Sylvia says she wants to make a star of young Tina, but what is her real motive? (Cue another musical sting! And give me a vodka stinger while you’re at it!)
The dramatic tension and musical machinations are played strictly for laughs and the main trio of triple talents takes the ball and runs with it. As Judy Denmark, Katie McManus captures the empty headed charm and maternal devotion of the perfect homemaker. McManus also gets to show off her phenomenal belting voice that can touch the heart and tickle the funny bone while raising goosebumps of admiration. Her voice easily fills the tiny Creative Cauldron playing space.
Ruthless! the Musical
closes October 30, 2016
Details and tickets
McManus is well matched by her onstage child, Tina, played to perfection by local sixth grader Sophia Manicone. The smile, the toe-tapping timing, the big voice – this kid’s a winner on all counts. Manicone also nails the comic tone of the piece, never losing her strong character as the wannabe star willing to kill for a part. Tina is a juicy (and somewhat naughty) role and Manicone handles herself like a professional. When the child’s mother suggests she give up her ideas of fame and focus on being a normal kid, Tina responds, “I’ve had a normal childhood, mother. It’s time to move on.”
Rounding out the leading trio, as Sylvia St Croix, Alan Naylor has a grand time as the grande dame. Looking soigné in a series of gowns, with high fashion hats to match, Naylor channels Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, with just a dash of Norma Desmond as a nightcap. Not just a guy dolled up in drag, much like males taking the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, Naylor treats Sylvia as a complete character – albeit one with tongue in his heavily rouged cheek. He also has a field day wrangling props like a giant martini glass and his decorous accessories. When Judy goes so far as to suggest little Tina join the Girl Scouts, Naylor lets out a banshee’s primal scream! “AAAAAAAAGGGH!,” shrieks Sylvia. “She’ll die in the Brownies!” – just a hint at the real world-versus-show business type humor that abounds in the piece.
Together McManus, Manicone and Naylor provide the centerpiece performances of Ruthless! and they provide a masterclass in comic timing and musical comedy pizzazz.
Joining the talented triumvirate is another big voiced, comedic cut-up: Kathy Halenda as Judy’s mom and a musical hating theatre critic, Lita Encore. Halenda’s turn as Lita amounts to a cameo with a couple of scenes, but it is the kind of performance that could earn an award in just as much time. Her booming contralto speaking voice milks every ounce of laughter from her scenes. And when she lets loose with Lita’s showstopping “I Hate Musicals,” hold on to your proverbial hats. By the way, Lita Encore has secrets too!
As the third grade teacher with show biz aspirations of her own, Shaina Virginia Kuhn as some nice moments going up against the treacherous Tina, and shows off a nicely trained voice of her own in “Teaching Third Grade.” Tamarin Ythier rounds out the cast as Tina’s third grade rival and another pivotal role later in the show. (Yep, you guessed it: another character with a secret.)
All of this musical mayhem is directed by Matt Conner who has a bit of a professional home-base at Creative Cauldron, having written and directed a number of their shows through the years. As the director of Ruthless! he has kept the pacing brisk. The staging – joined with some basic choreography by Kara-Tameika Watkins – does not do a lot in the three-quarter arrangement, but perhaps the small playing space did not offer much inspiration. The coffee table certainly gets a workout for dancing. The cast makes the most of the their moments onstage anyway. Their elegant and witty attire was designed by Margie Jervis whose work accentuates the proper balance of style and camp.
Parents may want to note: even though one of the leading ladies is a child, Ruthless! is not aimed at young children. The humor is risque and the language is a strong PG-13. By the same token, there were teens and even at least one (approximately) nine year old in the house when I saw the show and they looked like they had a grand old time. If you would be offended or your child shocked at hearing a young girl curse or commit murder, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
For me and others who live for musical theatre and have seen our share fair share of Momma Rose, Mame Dennis, Eve Harrington, and Rhoda Penmark, Ruthless! is a loving, loony and pointed send-up of some beloved shows. It’s also a chance to get away from the – ahem – ruthlessness of the current political season and escape into a world where sex, violence, family intrigue, and backstabbing will always have a home: the musical theatre!
Ruthless! The Musical . Book and lyrics by Joel Paley . Music by Marvin Laird . Directed Matt Conner . Featuring Sophia Manicone, Katie McManus, Alan Naylor, Tamarin Ythier, Shaina Virginia Kuhn, Kathy Halenda, and Madeline Aldana. . Music director & pianist: Walter “Bobby” McCoy . Choreographer: Kara-Tameika Watkins . Scenic and costume design: Margie Jervis . Lighting design: Joseph Lovins . Assistant stage manager and properties: Chris Riherd . Stage manager: Dwight Townsend . Produced by Creative Cauldron . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.