Review: Over-the-Top Dark Humor Misses the Mark in RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL at Theatre Palisades
RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL originally opened Off-Broadway in 1992, created as an over-the-top dark comedy spoof of the films The Bad Seed and All About Eve, and well-known Broadway musicals Gypsy and Annie. Similar to the dark comedy in musicals such as Little Shop of Horrors and Sweeney Todd where characters are murdered and then eaten, RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL centers on 8-year old Tina Denmark, who knows she was born to play the lead in her school's third grade show and will do anything to win the part. And I do mean anything.
Now onstage at Theatre Palisades, directed by Alta Abbott who first fell in love with the show during its 1993 West Coast premiere at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, I can only say that the over-the-top production sometimes seemed so dark that the comedy became invisible. But those who enjoy farcical parodies in which the actors overplay their roles to the hilt may find it more appealing than I did. Of course, given that the fire evacuation zone the week before the show's opening ended less than a block north of the theater itself, congratulations are in order for Abbott's ability to open the show as scheduled given the delays experienced when designers were unable to get there until a few days prior to opening.
RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL begins in the bright yellow 1950's suburban home of housewife Judy Denmark, portrayed by Jenna Nicole Sullivan as a Lucille Ball knockoff from her I Love Lucy days. Bragging that her goal in life is to just be "Tina's Mother" as she answers call after call on her pastel pink Princess phone, we soon meet her adorable but sociopath 8-year-old daughter Tina, portrayed by 14-year old Benni Ruby in the same type of polka dot Baby June dress from Gypsy, tapping her way through "Born to Entertain."
Her manager, Sylvia St. Croix, portrayed by cross-dressing expert Jon Sparks, chastises Tina for her lack of true "Talent," especially since Tina soon plans to audition for the lead in her third-grade play. That production, directed by the hard-drinking Miss Thorn (Cathy Reeves), sets itself up for doom when Louise Lerman (Jessica D. Stone) get the role of Pippi Longstocking and poor little Tina gets the non-speaking part of her dog, Puddles. So of course, Tina decides the only way she can play the part in the one-performance show is by murdering Louise. I will say that the audition scene was cleverly directed by Ms. Abbott, with cutouts standing alongside Tina holding their headshots up in front of their faces.While Tina spends time at a reform school for psychopathic ingenues, Judy discovers from her adoptive mother, theater critic Lita Encore (Randi Cee) who belts about how "I Hate Musicals," that her birth mother was a famous actress. So with her breadwinner daughter gone for so long and husband nowhere in sight, Judy decides that she should be famous as well since she ought to have a bit of the same talent as her mother and daughter put on display.
ACT II opens with a Sherman Wayne-designed complete set change into the marvelous New York City penthouse apartment of Broadway diva Ginger Del Marco, aka Judy Denmark, with her somewhat untrustworthy assistant Eve Allabout (Jessica D. Stone) begrudgingly caring to her needs, including walking and feeding her dog Puddles (played by real-life cutie Tallulah Hunter). News of Tina's soon-to-be release causes a feud between Ginger and her best-friend Sylvia, who boldly admits "I Want the Girl." And when Tina re-appears, the three break into song about "Parents and Children" and now "Ruthless" you have to be to get what you want in life. And then, Tina takes her revenge out on all of them.
Costume designer June Lissandrello, greatly assisted by Jon Sparks-designed wigs and assistant director Greg Abbott, perfectly captures the everyday 1950s wardrobe in Act I and then the glamour of Broadway in Act II. A few of the actors admitted to finding their own costumes elsewhere which greatly added to the show's presentation, especially Sullivan's emerald green gown which compliments her curves to a tee, topped off by glorious matching jewels.
Choreographer Victoria Miller keeps the dance moves simple to make up for the apparent lack of movement skills by cast members who struggled with many of the numbers on opening night. Sherman Wayne's lighting design seemed mismatched and off-center at times, which frustrated the directors, but Susan Stangl's sound design allowed cast members to always be heard and the Abbotts selected a wonderful assortment of timely tunes during the pre-show and intermission.
Perhaps as time passes, this production will gel more so that the humor of the story and talent of the actors can overcome the pitfalls I witnessed on opening night in RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird, at the Pierson Playhouse, located at 941 Temescal Canyon Dr. (just south of Sunset Blvd.) in Pacific Palisades 90272. Performances continue through Sunday December 8, 2019 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 P.M. and Sundays at 2:00 P.M., produced by Sherman Wayne and Martha Hunter with rights secured from Samuel French.
Reserved seat tickets are $27 with a $2 discount for seniors, students and servicemen. To purchase tickets, please call the box office at (310) 454-1970 preferably during box office hours, Wednesday through Saturday from 3:30 to 6:30 P.M. All voicemail messages will be answered in the order received to confirm ticket orders. For group ticket sales of 10 or more, please call the box office for group rates. A limited number of tickets are available online at https://theatrepalisades.ticketleap.com/ruthless/
Photo credit: Joy Daunis