Ruthless! The Musical
Thalian Hall Studio Theatre
6/29-30, 7/1-3, 6-10, 13-17, Wed. – Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
$14-$17 • www.thalianhall.com
There’s celebrity and obsession with it, and anyone living in the 21st century most likely is affected by it. It comes from watching soulless reality TV like “Jersey Shore,” where kids are fighting for the wrong kind of attention. It’s apparent when logging onto TMZ’s and Perez Hilton’s gossip-ridden sites, where reporting from the paparazzi-infested cess pool makes “news” of the day. It manifests from someone in small-town U.S.A., who is dreaming “to make it big.”
Celebrity is becoming less of an enigma these days and more of a nuisance, especially when it inspires cut-throat behavior. No one understands that better than Ms. Tina Denmark, an eight-year-old precocious wannabe actress and main protagonist from “Ruthless! The Musical.” Denmark’s desire to take the lead role in her school play manifests into something deadly comical and award-winning. “Ruthless!” won the 1993 New York Outer Critics Circle Award for “Best Off-Broadway Musical,” thanks to its mimicry of famed Broadway hits like “Gypsy” and movies like “The Bad Seed.” The show opens tonight (Wednesday, June 29) as part of the studio theater season of Cape Fear Theatre Arts.
The detriment and asset of Tina Denmark—who claims early on in the production, “I was born to be a star!”—is obvious according to the director of the show, Kat Vernon. “She’s absolutely ruthless, as are all the characters in this play. These people all have, to quote the show, ‘a pathological need to be famous.’”
Overflowing with soap opera-like predicaments, the play captivates audiences with comedic behaviors absolutely encompassing the absurd. It’s over-the-top melodrama which leads to life-or-death results.
“I absolutely love this style of theater,” Vernon admits. “I suppose it’s the characters’ conviction that their ridiculous choices are really the best possible course of action. To them, lunacy is normal and insanity is rational.”
The plot weaves through the lives of the cast, all affected by Tina’s main crux: her rise to stardom by any measure necessary. “Knuckle-biting, swooning, gasping, hissing—the odd mental breakdown here and there,” it’s all part of the show. Yet, Vernon’s making no bones about it: These are not likable people (though, it sure seems fun bringing them to life). “We’ve all come across less-extreme versions of these personalities in our lives,” the director says, “and there’s fun to be had just watching the crazy.”
The characters have no boundaries, and in the end that stretches the imagination of ridicule. When a theatre critic happens upon one of Tina’s shows, life takes on a whole different approach to imitating art.
“We’ve all felt that initial sting when we read a bad review of something we’ve done,” Vernon speaks professionally, having performed in numerous productions locally—including the 1999 run of “Ruthless!” produced by Opera House Theatre Co.—and even directing Shakespeare on the Green’s “As You Like It” and City Stage’s “Tick, Tick…Boom!” “But we move on. The characters in this play don’t so much move on. They lovingly nurture that initial sting until it’s a great, big festering sore.”
Add to it their staunch seriousness, and the show contains a ton of dramatic fodder. The characters are written with a “formal, affected acting style” indicative of plays from the middle of the last century, “which is so very easy to mock,” Vernon says. “To find that particular style in a script, with so many excellent female roles, it’s like catnip.”
The show consists of one of Wilmington’s most talented youngsters, Lily Zukerman, who plays Tina (“our budding psychopath,” Vernon so aptly claims). Davis Byrd is Tina’s mother, Judy, while Alisa Harris brings to life theatre critic Lita Encore. Madison Weidberg and Emily Bohbrink each take on dual roles in the production. “We do have one guy [in the cast,]” Vernon notes, “but he’s playing a woman.” Charlie Robertson transforms into Sylvia, Tina’s morally bankrupt manager.
Vernon embraces the fact that there isn’t a joke or gag too much for “Ruthless!” That it’s a musical—or a parody of a musical, whichever shoe fits—makes it highly entertaining. Headed by music director Jonathan Barber, with assistance from Ryan Michael Blake, the show transposes classic themes and structures within musical theatre.
“You’ve got your expository book numbers, a tap number, an Ethel Merman-style belt number, a ballad, and songs that call to Sondheim and Weill,” Vernon says. “The real fun comes in the lyrics, which are generally the opposite of what you expect from each particular style and, again, completely absurd.”
Reveling in its tongue-in-cheek camp becomes expectant. For instance, one of the song titles is aptly named “I Hate Musicals”; another includes the lyric, “Hey! Watch me cook a chicken!”
“It makes me giggle like a fool every single time I hear it,” she says. “It’s really a matter of your sense of humor. If you’re looking for light and fluffy and sweet, this isn’t your show. If you’re looking for delightfully bitchy people behaving badly, come play with us.”