Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
If Ruthless! is well served by Theatre Elision, the show has likewise been good to them, as this run is their third production of the show in their short history as a company. It is easy to see why the artists at Elision would want to come back to this exuberant property, which should also be a good draw for audiences still regaining the theatregoing habit after the COVID debacle. Ruthless! was first staged off-Broadway in 1992, where it had a ten-month-long run. It has had a successful Los Angles run, numerous productions around the country, an Off-Broadway revival, and an award-winning London production.
With book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird, the show took shape when Paley and Laird hit on the idea of basing a musical on The Bad Seed, a mid-1950s melodramatic novel turned into a play turned into a film about a young girl with evil impulses. The rights-holders to The Bad Seed declined (along the lines of "are you out of your minds?), so Paley and Laird expanded on their original idea, keeping the gist of the narrative, but shifting the context to a showbiz milieu and interspersing references to other iconic films and shows, such as All About Eve, Gypsy, and Gone with the Wind.
The score is full of pleasing tunes by Laird that could have been the B-list work of Golden Age musical composers such as Jule Styne, John Kander and Jerry Herman, whose B-list work is still awfully good. If the music doesn't match the best work of those giants, Paley's lyrics are sublimely funny, a cornucopia of arch wit and wordplay. His book is equally sharp, with such zingers as housewife Judy Denmark telling her precocious eight-year-old daughter Tina that she wants Tina to have a normal childhood, only to have Tina retort "I've had a normal childhood, it's time to move on."
Tina wants desperately to be a big, fabulous star and sees the school play, Pippi Longstocking in Tahiti, as her first step. She swears that she would do anything to get the lead role, repeating the word "anything" in a menacing tone. Judy has no life but to be "Tina's Mother"–the title of the show's first song. Obsessively domestic, she never stops stirring, with a with a slotted spatula, whatever batter is in a bright red mixing bowl. Judy tries to curb Tina's ambitions, but an aggressively pushy talent agent named Sylvia de la Croix pushes back. Tina loses the part of Pippi to a less talented classmate, but Sylvia slyly suggests to third-grade teacher Ms. Thorn, herself a failed aspiring Broadway actress, that Tina be made the understudy. Thus, the die is cast.
There is also Judy's mother, Lita Encore, a theater critic of the ilk that, to borrow a line from Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound, "goes to the theater to see what went wrong." Lita shows up with gale wind force in a scene-stealing performance by Greta Grosch, going to town with the best number in the show, "I Hate Musicals." By the end of the show–originally done as two acts, but now condensed into a ninety-minute comedic sprint without intermission–Tina has served jail time, Judy has a new name and a penthouse apartment with a scheming personal assistant, and Sylvia de la Croix has spilled her well-hidden beans.
The original 1992 production cast a not-quite eleven-year-old Laura Bell Bundy as Tina Denmark, the amoral child star. That preceded Bundy's featured role in the original cast of Hairspray, a stint as understudy to Kristin Chenoweth in Wicked, and a Tony-nominated lead performance as Elle Wood in Legally Blonde. What's more, the role was understudied by then unknown Britney Spears and Natalie Portman.
No one with that level of celebrity is in Theatre Elision's production, but no need, as the six cast members are excellent. Amanda Mai is terrific as Tina, persuasively displaying talent that could make her a star (without resorting to being "ruthless"), with a pleasing, belting voice and great comedic timing. Unlike Miss Bundy in 1992, Mai is an adult, but she conveys the demeanor of a spoiled eight-year-old, and later a jaded adolescent, with aplomb. Christine Wade is amazing as prim and repressed Judy, who halfway through has a total personality change, becoming a narcissistic prima donna, singing like an angel in both personas.
Sylvia de la Croix, the talent agent without any scruples, was played in the original Off-Broadway, Los Angeles, and London productions by male actors, which may have ratcheted up the show's "camp" quotient. Here, Vanessa Gamble takes on the role and hits the bulls-eye, both in striking all the laugh marks as she slouches through Tina and Judy's lives and in delivering her two big numbers, "Talent" and "I Want the Girl," with a wicked brew of brio and cynicism. Isabella Dunseith is a splendid bundle of nerves as Ms. Thorn, the frazzled third-grade teacher who hopelessly seeks joy by directing school musicals.
As Louise, the girl who bested Tina to score the lead role in the school play, Deidre Cochran is required to demonstrate a clear lack of talent, and she does so with comic flair. Later, as the conniving personal assistant, we hear her strong, clear voice singing the louche "Penthouse Apartment." Greta Grosch, as Lita Encore, completes the cast, and as already mentioned, steals the show whenever she appears. A sequence in which she puts together a sandwich, which sounds like straightforward business, is one of the funniest things I have seen on stage in ages.
Lindsay Fitzgerald not only directs the production but also designed the costumes, which are themselves comic gems, and the rear-wall projections that establish the settings, such as the Denmark family home drenched in 1950s suburban chic, the elegant penthouse, and the bright lights and marquees of Times Square. Harrison Wade, Theatre Elision's resident music director, does his usual masterful, his keyboard bringing out every ounce of lilt in the score, aided by Miles Wheally on drums.
Ruthless can claim to be about the need to be willing to do anything to make it in show business, with special emphasis on the Broadway stage. Let's face it, though, the show really is an affectionate nod to melodramatic tropes adorned with a peppy score, outrageously funny characters, and a book which, if not always strictly logical, always leans toward the side of go-for-broke entertainment. Ruthless! might be considered as an Annie for grown-ups who don't require neatly tied-up happy endings. However you look at it, it's a smart, bright honey of a show with mischief on its mind and a great match for the considerable talent assembled by Theatre Elision.
Ruthless!, runs through July 30, 2023 at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. Tickets: $38 general admission; $32 seniors and neighbors; $25 students and industry colleagues. For tickets and information, please visit www.elisionproductions.com.
Book and Lyrics: Joel Paley; Music: Marvin Laird; Director, Scenic, Projection and Costume Design: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director and Pianist: Harrison Wade; Sound Engineer: Uriyah Dalman; Lighting Design and Stage Manager: Laina Grendle
Cast: Tyler Borman (understudy), Deidre Cochran (Louise/Eve), Isabella Dunseith (Ms. Thorn), Vanessa Gamble (Sylvia), Greta Grosch (Lita), Alexa Johnson (understudy), Kaitlin Klemencic (understudy), Amanda Mai (Tina), Christine Wade (Judy).