The set-up: If there's a soft spot in your jaded little heart for a skewed, off-centered, off-Broadway musical, this quirky little show at Standing Room Only will be catnip.
The execution: A wacky combo of Gypsy, The Bad Seed, and Forbidden Broadway, with more than an elbow-poke of All About Eve around its wickedly tattered edges, this parody of a parody has a devilishly clever book and lyrics by Joel Paley and Jerry Herman-like hummable music by Marvin Laird. The show is utterly delightful. Forget Kinky Boots, the gayest musical of the month is Ruthless! The Musical
Here's what happens: little Tina Denmark (tyke Sarah Leonard in wicked, scene-stealing mode with leather lungs like Merman) is one of those precocious showbiz brats who do five minutes when they open the refrigerator and the light goes on. She tap dances on the coffee table to show off, while Mom Judy (Lendsey Kersey, the other cast member with real lungs) follows up with can of Pledge. Tina's got talent, and she'll entertain you until one of you drops from exhaustion - I assure you, it won't be her! She wants the glamorous life of a star so bad she can taste it, even though mom with Donna Reed hair and pearls over hostess dress, worries where all that talent has come from. But Sylvia St. Croix (Jay Menchaca, in heavenly drag) knows. Crisply tailored, Miss St. Croix, a parade float of broad-shouldered chutzpah, becomes Tina's agent, mentor, Svengali. If Tina was born to entertain, then Sylvia's mission is to see that talent infect the world, like Ebola. Whatever it takes, Tina will be a star, even if it's over somebody's dead body. And all before you can say Shirley Temple.
The story continues with shocking ridiculousness, each new revelation funnier than the last; past lives unmasked, reconciliations swooned over. Tina, of course, serves time for her murderous pursuit of fame and fortune, and when she emerges from the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues, her mother Judy has become a Tony-winning star on Broadway. There seems to be a lineage, some star gene, that runs through the rotten Denmarks, which accounts for half the fun and many of the surprises. There are comic turns from Lauren Hainley, as the ultimate harried third grade teacher and actress wannabe; Katy Butler as child bully Louise, and then in Act II, Judy's scheming gal Friday Eve; and Cheryl Duffin as chopped liver Lita Encore, a battleaxe critic.
This type of tom-foolery with its bitchy backstage barbs and snappy attitude requires a defter touch than that supplied by director Christine Weems. There's no rhythm to the mayhem, and scenes drag terribly - no pun intended. The effervescence so apparent in the musical numbers goes flat in the dialogue scenes. This isn't Ibsen, folks, it's Charles Busch, let's pick up the tempo and fill in those Pinteresque pauses.
Kersey, though, need do nothing more. She's a consummate pro, and musicals are in her genes. Her operatic sweep of a voice is pitch-perfect, whether answering the turquoise rotary phone as June Cleaver look-alike in "Tina's Mother" (a song Sondheim would be proud to call his own), or as Broadway diva Ginger Del Marco in the mock-heroic anthem "It Will Never Be That Way Again."
One way or the other, 11-year-old Miss Leonard is fated for Broadway. With trumpet voice and ability to wink at the audience, she absolutely mesmerizes. She's got comic timing, the pipes of Bernadette Peters, and a theater trunk full of stage presence. She's the real thing.
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Menchaca has a ball as Sylvia, looking both glamorous and seedy. He deliciously fills out a gold sequin gown, then later sashays in an emerald green A-line coat as if channeling Audrey Hepburn (emerald is your color, Mr. Menchaca). Although he can veer off-key at a moment's notice, his singing is akin to a breathy Rex Harrison, but he's having such campy fun he pulls it off with wicked panache.
Weems and Wayne Landon's set design sparkles with deft little touches like Judy's sunny display of colorful bar ware and that liquor bottle which will get a lot of use, and Ginger's Art Deco-inspired penthouse that has wallpaper to match Eve's dress. Landon doubles as musical director, and the sound of his sprightly quartet could fill a Broadway house. But in Obsidian Art Space with its Lilliputian square footage, why do the actors have to use body mikes? The amplification is unnecessary overkill.
The verdict: Ruthless! is big, bold, and cheesy, just how we like our off-Broadway musicals. Where else would we be inspired by such a timeless homily, "Life is a bitch, and it starts in 3rd grade." Ah, so true, so true. Go, and find out what life upon the wicked stage is really like.
Ruthless! continues through February 28. Standing Room Only Productions. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak Drive. Purchase tickets online at www.sro-productions.com or call 713-300-2358. $20-$37.50.