RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL Reviewed by Ron Lee 20 June 2014
by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird
How many musical theatre performers does it take to change a lightbulb?
50. One to change the bulb and forty-nine to watch and say, “I could have done it better.”
If you’ve been to New York City and seen Forbidden Broadway, a musical that sends up all of the current musicals on Broadway, you’ll have a slight glimpse into The Theatre Division’s inaugural production, Ruthless! The Musical, which is playing until July 5 at the Seymour Centre.
Opening in the 1950s, Judy Denmark (Katrina Retallick) is a Doris Day housewife who, complete with headscarf and bangs, is deliriously happy doing the washing, ironing, cooking and cleaning in her suburban home in what appears to be the United States mid-West. Judy acknowledges that she lacks talent herself, but has an eight-year-old daughter, Tina (Madison Russo), who is an extraordinarily gifted singer, dancer and actor, and is obsessed with becoming a big Broadway star. The child is driven, determined and focused and will do anything to accomplish her dream. Anything.
Tina is desperate to win the title role in the school play, Pippi In Tahiti, but loses out to Louise Lerman (Caitlin Berry), who is cast because of her parents’ influence, and Louise doesn’t really want to do the role anyway. Judy convinces the teacher/director/playwright/aspiring actress, Miss Myrna Thorn (Margi De Ferranti) to allow daughter Tina to be Louise’s understudy for the production. When Tina asks, “What’s an understudy?”, Judy explains that if something happens to Louise, then Tina will play the leading role. Hmmm…
For her sins, Tina is sent to The Home For The Criminally Talented (where punishment is being made to perform in Brigadoon). Judy contemporaneously realises her inherited talent, transforms into Ginger Del Marco and becomes the toast of Broadway. She looks a bit like Carol Burnett, and as she talks about her struggles about being the daughter of a Broadway legend whom she describes as “Momma”, I begin to think that we’re at An Evening With Liza Minnelli.
There are numerous familiar elements in this production, with similarities to Gypsy and Mommie Dearest, and the scripted reference to All About Eve is probably unnecessary. Did writers Joel Paley and Marvin Laird pay homage to The Bad Seed by naming the eight-year-old girl Tina Denmark? In The Bad Seed, the eight-year-old was Rhoda Penmark.
Making an expected dramatic entrance as influential New York theatre critic, Lita Encore, is Geraldine Turner. Lita, who had been known to close plays because of her reviews, says, “I knew one day God would punish me for panning Fiddler”. Ironically, the Grande dame of Australian musical theatre sings I Hate Musicals in a style reminiscent of Ethel Merman.
Meredith O’Reilly is Sylvia St Croix, who eventually manages Ginger Del Marco, but why is she around for so long? What is her interest? Why is she so insistent about guiding Tina’s career?
This is a cast in which there are no weak links. Each actor is strong and versatile in her own right, and Madison Russo, already a seasoned performer internationally, is an astonishing talent, not only for her age, but for any age. Her abilities, timing and certainty are a delight to watch.
The script is so well-written that I found myself continually laughing out loud. Anyone who has worked in the theatre will be thoroughly entertained by a hundred in-jokes such as the ultimate actors’ criticism, “You were indicating!” When Tina doesn’t get the role of Pippi, she innocently says to her mother, “I don’t understand. Louise Lerman looks too Jewish to play Pippi Longstocking.” Ask Mel Gibson and Marlon Brando about that one.
An actor is asked what she wants to do, and she replies, “I want to direct”, which just about every actor will say at least once in their career. For all of the in-jokes and nuances, the dialogue is very accessible to all audiences. They will identify the competitiveness and the jealousies and the stage mothers. Every character in this play wants to live vicariously through the young girl.
Some might say that Lisa Freshwater’s direction of Ruthless! The Musical is unsubtle, and it’s entirely appropriate considering that we’re dealing with a satire of a Broadway musical. Freshwater milks and extracts every ounce of applause from each song and, for greater dramatic effect, uses pin spots in the lighting to focus on each performer at appropriate moments. No stone was left unturned in this musical. It’s staged on a square revolve, which works well, and the live band sounds much bigger than it is.
Congratulations to Freshwater and to Producer Alistair Thomson for attracting the resources to stage this first production. If it’s any indication of the standard of their offerings, The Theatre Division will enjoy a long and rosy future.
I entirely enjoyed Ruthless! The Musical at the Seymour Centre and recommend it unconditionally, but it’s a very short run, so you should book ASAP because it’s going to sell out. I anticipate that the season will either be extended or it will return at a bigger venue in the not-too-distant future. Book just in case. It really is a lot of fun.
Ron Lee, CSP