Candlelight’s Forum Theatre
If someone could make musicals out of The Little Shop of Horrors and Carrie, why not The Bad Seed? Better yet, why not The Bad Seed crossed with Gypsy?
That seems to have been the genesis of Ruthless!, the off-Broadway hit now receiving its midwest premiere at Candlelight’s Forum Theatre. A wickedly funny send-up of stage mothers, child stars, critics, and other theatrical lowlifes, this comedy by playwright-lyricist Joel Paley and composer Marvin Laird makes no pretense of being anything other than the party entertainment it is. With Paley as director, it’s spiffily performed by an all-pro cast who put a well-burnished gloss on the script’s sometimes campy, sometimes burlesque brand of humor.
Little Tina Denmark is a precocious preteen born to entertain–and frustrated with her Donna Reed-like mother, Judy, who tries to give her a more traditional upbringing. “I’ve had a normal childhood. It’s time to move on,” barks the bratty third-grader. Assigned the second-banana role of Tippi’s dog in the school play, Tippi in Tahiti: The Musical, Tina bristles at losing the title role to classmate Louise Lerman (“She’s too Jewish-looking for the part,” fumes the little darling)–so she kills her. Judy is horrified, of course. But Tina’s brand-new manager, Sylvia St. Croix (a stage name, she admits–her real name is Sylvia St. Sidney), has a different reaction: this is a kid who’s headed for the big time, and Sylvia wants to go along for the ride.
So proceeds this venomous little satire whose theme–that getting ahead takes more than talent, it takes a complete lack of moral inhibition–has implications ranging far beyond the world of entertainment, though the script restricts itself to that arena as it spoofs a procession of show-biz stereotypes. Abusive celebrity parents? Just wait till Judy discovers her own talent, changes her name to Ginger, and places her daughter-turned-rival in the Daisy Clover Home for Psychopathic Ingenues. And don’t overlook Judy’s stepmom Lita Encore, a theater reviewer who’ll pan her own stepdaughter without a qualm, or Judy’s real mother, a legendary stage star last seen in an all-white company of the all-black version of Hello, Dolly! Backstabbing buddies? The second act is almost all about Eve, Judy’s secretary, who’s just waiting to claw her way up the boss’s ladder. Even Tina’s third-grade teacher yearns to be on Broadway (if only she can settle the question of literary rights with those damn Pippi people).
Filled with inside jokes, broad visual humor, and a steady stream of double entendres, non sequiturs, puns, and wisecracks, Ruthless! would be funny under almost any circumstances. Here, with a cast that backs up broad comic attitudes with precision and musical finesse, it’s a riot. Priscilla Ashley Behne, 9 going on 30, brings a surprisingly subtle sarcasm and preternaturally brassy belt to Tina. Paula Scrofano is in fine form as Judy/Ginger, the epitome of actors’ schizophrenic tendencies. Renee Matthews, Catherine Lord, and E. Faye Butler have show-stopping moments as Lita, Eve, and Tina’s teacher; Aleshia Brevard is waspishly androgynous as a trade-paper columnist; and Dale Benson in drag conveys a delicious Agnes Moorehead-Rosalind Russell hauteur as Sylvia St. Croix, who knows more than she’s telling. James Noone created the hilarious Dick-and-Jane-storybook set (whose cartoonish look and odd angles recall the satiric set of Cloud 42’s tongue-in-cheek production of The Bad Seed a few seasons ago), and Gail Cooper-Hecht has designed an array of wonderfully ghastly costumes for these egomaniacal characters. Nick Venden and Michael Keefe provide the two-piano accompaniment for Laird and Paley’s score, a witty pastiche of Broadway styles.
It’s a sign of the times, perhaps, that Ruthless! shows little interest in the moral preaching of its sources. In 1954 The Bad Seed’s Rhoda, who killed a classmate for his penmanship medal, was considered monstrous. In Ruthless! Tina is a heroine whose purity of purpose makes her a Shirley Temple for the Long Island Lolita era. By her standards, Rhoda’s crime wasn’t that she killed but what she killed for. Who needs a penmanship medal? But a lead role–that’s another matter.