Arts In LA



Streaming on BroadwayHD

Anya Evans as Tina Denmark

Ruthless!, the riotous Off-Broadway hit musical of 1992, was legendary for casting three young talents to play prepubescent, tap-dancing, murderous Tina Denmark. Laura Bell Bundy, the future star of Legally Blonde, The Musical and Hairspray, would open in the role, while her two understudies waiting in the wings would be future Oscar winner Natalie Portman and future mega-star Britney Spears. Last year, the musical made its London West End premiere at the Arts Theatre. BroadwayHD filmed a performance and has added it to its streaming offerings.
   The musical, a maniacal mash-up of All About Eve and The Bad Seed, plays as if it had been a skit on The Carol Burnett Show, directed by John Waters. It sends up a range of works, from Gypsy to the big-budget Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals of the ’80s. In it, Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca), a typical ’50s mother and housewife, keeps a clean house and tends to her remarkably talented daughter Tina (Anya Evans). Tina, with blond locks and pigtails, resembles a cherub, but deep inside percolates an insatiable hunger for success. She murders her classmate so she can win the starring role in the elementary production of Pippi [as in Longstocking] in Tahiti and feels zero remorse. Tina’s mother refuses to believe her angel could be pure evil, but Judy’s adoptive mother (Tracie Bennett) has troubling news about Tina’s heritage. Her “talent” may have been inherited and that “talent” may brew inside Judy Demark as well.

Ruthless! is a wild ride in which nothing is taken seriously. Marvin Laird’s tunes are complex, jaunty, and memorable, and Joel Paley’s lyrics poke fun at the conventions while telling stories through his wordsmanship. The script has been altered through the years from the original production in 1992. None of those changes originated with this production. Some of the alterations work, like excising the reporter character in Act Two. It streamlines the act. The song by the theater critic, “I Hate Musicals,” has lost much of its bite. The original production mocks London extravaganzas of the ’80s, while the new production took those sidesplitting references out and put in lines that are not as funny. Some of the dialogue has been changed: During the song “Angel Mom,” Judy shouts “Smile, dammit,” instead of “Smile, Baby.” This removes both the ’50s pastiche fantasy the show had once attempted to emulate due to expletives and the reference to Mama Rose’s badgering her daughter in Gypsy.
   Act Two is hilarious and hits all the right notes, but Richard Fitch’s direction in act one is problematic. Parody is a difficult beast. The text itself provides the necessary context, but the performances are too manic to be funny. The comedy is suffocated. The play’s author, Joel Paley, unknowingly calls attention to the issue with some of Judy’s dialogue at the end of the first act. “It’s too big. I think you want the audience to come to you. You’re not in the moment. You’re indicating.” Young Evans particularly could have benefited from a subtler touch. By act two, the cast has relaxed and the spoof of All About Eve works wonderfully.
   The production at the Arts Theatre features some stellar performances. Maresca, when she evolves into the diva in Act Two, finds the perfect interpretation of a venomous, egotistical star. In the song “It Will Never Be That Way Again,” Maresca taps into the character’s hidden humanity and calls attention to the attributes her character had in Act One as a Donna Reed–type mother. As the dragon-lady agent Sylvia, cross-dressing Jason Gardiner steals the show with more warped looks than Norma Desmond. He never turns Sylvia into a cartoon character, and instead brings verisimilitude to an outrageous role.
   Years after her award-winning portrayal of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, Bennett is unfortunately still imitating Judy. That worked when she starred in the London revival of Follies (particularly since Judy would have probably been cast as Carlotta had she still been alive in ’72, and Bennett’s performance gives a glimpse of how Judy would have hit "I’m Still Here" out of the park) but now those ticks and line readings have become distracting gimmicks. Harriet Thorpe from Absolutely Fabulous brings a witty brand of bitchiness to elementary school teacher Myrna Thorn, and Laura Denning gives a kooky performance as a perverse version of the villain from All About Eve.

The filming of the performance, led by camera director Nick Morris, seamlessly captures the mood and gives the actors camera space, camera angles, and editorial pacing to enhance their performances.
   Despite quibbles, the addition of Ruthless! to the BroadwayHD collection is a welcome chance for audiences to catch one of the silliest, drollest musical comedies of the 1990s.
March 9, 2019





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