Ruthless! The Musical
Thalian Hall Studio Theatre
7/6-10, 13-17, Wed. – Sat.,
8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. $23-$25
“Ruthless! the Musical,” currently being staged by Cape Fear Theatre Arts in the studio theater of Thalian Hall, is an extremely funny parody of musical comedy. Written by Joal Paley (book and lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music), the dialogue is witty, quick and a direct spoof of many beloved films and plays, including “The Bad Seed,” “All About Eve” and “Gypsy,” to name a few.
The “Gypsy” connection is multi-layered and unmissable. Besides the obvious homage throughout the script and the music—“Sing out, Louise!” even appears as part of the dialogue—Laird has been working with Broadway show-stopper Bernadette Peters since they met in 1961 on tour with “Gypsy.” He has conducted the music for Peters’ solo concert and even was the musical director for her much-lauded revival of “Gypsy” on Broadway in 2003.
Laura Bell Bundy, who originated the role of Tina Denmark in New York, was in “Gypsy” with Betty Buckley, as well. (Fun trivia fact: Bundy’s two understudies for the original New York run were Natalie Portman and Britney Spears. Given the motivation of understudies in this script—and the lengths they go to for success—it is interesting that both ladies have gone on to become household names in modern America, as did that famous second fiddle, Gypsy Rose Lee.)
Judy Denmark (Davis Byrd) is a classic suburban housewife whose greatest achievement is her daughter, Tina (Lily Zukerman). We meet Judy in her cage—err, living room—looking spic and span in her perfect house, singing sweetly and awaiting the arrival of Tina. Her tidy world is shaken by the arrival of Sylvia St. Croix (Charlie Robertson), an imposing personality looking to manage Tina’s budding performance career. Tina auditions for the school play, and does not get the lead. Sylvia negotiates with Ms. Thorn (Emily Bohbrink), the third-grade teacher directing the play, for Tina to become the understudy to Louise Lerman (Madison Weidberg), the young lady whose parents bought her the leading role. Tina willfully and knowingly kills Louise, planning to go on in her place. Judy turns Tina into the police and uncovers the hidden memory that she is not the child of Lita Encore (Alisa Harris), the theatre reviewer, but in fact the long missing child of Ruth Delmarco, a famed actress, who was presumed dead from an apparent suicide. Ironically, death occurred after a bad review was published by Encore (the character, not this paper).
Lily Zukerman is mind-blowing in “Ruthless!” While preparing for this role, she was busy performing as Caliban in the recent run of Shakespeare on the Green Youth Company’s production, “The Tempest.” To be clear, “Ruthless!” is a demanding role for someone so young: she sings, dances and kills the rest of the cast. What makes Zukerman’s performance work is that she gets the show’s farcical nature; she plays it straight when she needs to and hams it up when it’s called for. Delineating the two can make for a tough call for any actor but especially for someone her age, who probably doesn’t yet have the cultural vocabulary that this show is based upon. (Or maybe she has been brought up on Bette Davis films and Maxwell Anderson’s writing!) Zukerman pulls it off with a lot of poise—and a lot of talent!
I last saw Charlie Robertson as Claudius in The Browncoat’s re-imagining of “Hamlet.” It was a bit of a surprise to see him in high heels and a bouffant wig. That being said, he’s a riot. He also chooses to make the humor in the script the focus—and not the fact that he is in drag. There’s a lot of Dame Edna onstage with him: Even though Sylvia St. Croix is not an emotionally deep character, he makes her genuinely intriguing, unveiling her to the audience with real affection and tenderness for this poor mistreated woman—much like Humphries shows us the tender side of the Dame.
Byrd as “Tina’s mother, Judy Denmark” is pretty, sweet and terribly campy. She probably has the most well-written character. In Act One, her music is very high-pitched, constrained and accurately communicates her life in a cage, both as a housewife and as a person denied the true knowledge of her past and destiny. In Act Two, when she has embraced her true identity and purpose, it is much more brassy and confident, as is she.
Harris as Lita Encore, the theatre critic who hates musicals and doesn’t see most of the shows she reviews, is just fun. She has some of the best theatre jokes in the script, and she plays farce like it is second nature.
The supporting cast of Weidberg and Bohbrink both play double roles. Seeing Weidberg cast as the ugly and talentless Louise Lerman was a surprise since Weidberg is so beautiful and talented. She and Bohbrink work well together and seem to have lots of fun onstage.
Really, if anything can be said about this cast it is that they are having a blast, consequently the audience does, too. The night I attended it was packed, and everyone was laughing. Though written by successful artists about the painful struggle to succeed, and the drive that is necessary to do so (whether it is your own or Mama Rose‘s), ultimately, the point of this show is to poke a little fun at ourselves and each other—to recognize our foibles and laugh in spite of them. The cast and the script come together to make this an entertaining evening.