BWW Review: RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL: Spawn of Eve Harrington
Ruthless! The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Joel Paley, Music by Marvin Laird, Directed by Russell R. Greene, Produced by Shana Dirik; Musical Direction, Gina Naggar; Choreographer, Kai Chao; Stage Manager, Sarah O'Neill; Costume Design, Anna Silva/Shana Dirik; Set Design/Dressing, Shana Dirik; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, CRT; Wig Design, Marc Capizzi
Performances through November 24 by Theater UnCorked at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.theateruncorked.com
What do you get when you mix aspects of Gypsy, The Bad Seed, and All About Eve with a heavy dose of camp and a soupçon of soap opera? Ruthless! The Musical, an all-female homage to overly-ambitious child actors, sleazy agents, poison pen critics, and jealous understudies that is a star vehicle for a little girl with stars in her eyes. In its second season on the Boston theater scene, Theater UnCorked takes a first crack at musical comedy and, even as it hits a few bumps along the way, it hits the funny bone again and again.
Producing Artistic Director Shana Dirik (Sylvia St. Croix) initiates the scenery chewing, but is quickly elbowed aside by the 8-year old Tina Denmark who was "Born to Entertain." Ekin Cakim played the role on opening night, but shares the assignment with Fiona Simeqi throughout the sold out short run. If Cakim has any nerves, they were not in evidence as she lapped up the limelight, tapped and sang her heart out, and pouted and rolled her eyes in keeping with Tina's sociopathic characteristics. As her mother Judy, René Bergeron is a delightfully witless homemaker, doting on her daughter while being totally manipulated by her. Her transformation in the second act will have you believe that another person has taken over the part.
Although Judy wants Tina to have a normal childhood, St. Croix intervenes to make her a star. Foiled by failing to win the lead in the school play directed by the third grade teacher Miss Thorn (Sarah Sinclair), a tippler and frustrated thespian, Tina agrees to be the understudy and does what it takes to wrest the role from the untalented Louise Lerman (Lydian DeVere Yard). In a send-up of theater critics, Tina's grandmother Lita Encore (Susan Wentworth Austin) arrives to review the show, sneering all the way ("I Hate Musicals"). Family secrets are revealed, leading up to a big finish for the first act ("Angel Mom").
In the second act, more secrets spill out and some people are not who they pretend to be, but I don't want to spoil the fun. In fact, Ruthless! The Musical is predicated on fun and this ensemble of women and girls (Alivia Rowe plays another youngster) not only provides it for the audience, but clearly are having a blast on stage. The storyline is so over the top, it is difficult to tell who is overacting (Note to Director Russell R. Greene: I'd say there's a bit of that), but they all seem "born to entertain." Lots of humor is transmitted through the musical numbers, but the lyrics were often drowned out by the volume of the dual keyboards (Musical Direction, Gina Naggar). However, I have it on good authority that the sound situation will be resolved for the remaining performances. Simple choreography by Kai Chao adds to the flow and Michael Clark Wonson's lighting design effectively puts the focus where it belongs. Dirik's set design is a little bit 50s and a little bit psychedelic. She also shares credit with Anna Silva for costume design, and they succeed in giving definition to the quirks of the characters. Kudos also to Marc Capizzi's wig designs.
Ruthless! The Musical, with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird, opened Off-Broadway on March 13, 1992, and closed on January 24, 1993. The role of Tina was originated by Laura Bell Bundy (Hairspray, Legally Blonde) and her talented understudies were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. It has had a number of regional theater productions and has gone across the pond in 2002 and again in 2018. The two acts (with one intermission) speed by in about 90 minutes and you have to stay alert to catch all of the changing relationships. Don't worry if you miss a detail here or there. All that matters is which ruthless character is left standing at the end.