One of the more pleasing experiences of a critic is to reluctantly attend a production with low expectations but to find the performance totally gratifying. If the show is known to be a “send-up,” you can raise a red flag of apprehension, and even more if it’s a not-so-notable musical by not-so-famous collaborators. Send-ups can be tricky, since pastiche, and particularly farce, can wear thin. But “Ruthless! The Musical” pushes all the right buttons, offering a bright script and bouncy music with clever and provocative lyrics. Altarena Playhouse gives it a rousing rendition that is enjoyable from start to finish. The casting and acting are superb, and the creative elements sparkle.
“Ruthless! The Musical” is all about the super talented pre-teen Tina Denmark, portrayed by the super talented pre-teen McKenzie Lopezlira, who acts, sings, and taps up a storm. Her sarcasm bites, and her occasional off-color language lands with just the right mix of surprise and humor. Tina aspires to be a great performer. She receives all the support imaginable from sacrificing Judy, her stay-at-home mom, who exemplifies the ideal 1950’s homemaker. Attired in a crisp dress, a pristine white apron, and red high-heeled shoes, she’s prepared to serve tea or cocktails to any unannounced visitor. Sarah Elizabeth Williams is Judy, who displays a fine singing voice and crack comic timing as the demure mom in Act 1, and as her alter ego in Act 2.
The show starts with a light touch as we get to know the characters. But then, Tina auditions to play the lead in “Pippi in Tahiti.” She loses to the untalented but rich Louise Lerman, played to the hilt by Caroline Schneider, and we find that Tina wasn’t spawned on the set of “Father Knows Best,” but of “The Bad Seed.” Black comedy sets in. Not only does Tina become manipulative and foul mouthed, but evil intentions arise when she realizes that if she were the understudy, she would stand in as Pippi Longstocking if the lead is unable to perform. Disaster looms.
Along the way, we meet Miss Thorn, the third-grade teacher, who selects Louise as the lead in the play because of her parents’ connections, and who suffers through the girl’s acting incompetence. A special recognition goes out to Laura Morgan, who in an emergency stepped in to play Miss Thorn. Morgan is not even the understudy, but the show’s choreographer! Although she had a script in hand to help with the lines, her performance could not have exuded more acting savvy, full of emotion and zest. The audience was demonstrative of its appreciation for her outstanding contribution during the bows.
There are also not one, but two, important characters who draw on the “Mame” and Mother Rose from “Gypsy” tradition. Ronnie Anderson plays Sylvia St. Croix, an unscrupulous theatrical agent, who pushes to get Tina into show business, with an over-the-top performance that fills the stage. Enter Lita Encore, theater critic and Judy Denmark’s adoptive mother, portrayed by an also saucy and domineering Lisa Appleyard, who offers a powerful delivery of the contrarian “I Hate Musicals.”
Significant events toward the end of Act 1 lead to situational and character transformations and revelations that should be enjoyed as surprises when attending the play. Some events become more extreme and darker, but they are so unrealistic and silly that they don’t dampen the fun. Suffice it to say that “Ruthless! The Musical” deserves its cult status and the awards that it has received over the years.
Director Dana Anderson uses all of the resources of the Altarena stage from the balconies and circular staircase to the vomitoria (i.e.: egresses). The crack performances and sharp interplay drive the action at just the right pace. Of the creative elements, Sarina Renteria’s lighting especially stands out.
The production is not flawless, but weaknesses don’t diminish the overall enjoyment. The band’s volume was too high in the prelude and continued to overpower the singers early in the performance. Williams has a beautifully trained voice, but her lyrics in her opening number, “Tina’s Mother” were sometimes drowned out by the musicians. The only sub-standard singing comes from Sylvia, which is particularly exposed in the trio “Angel Mom” because of the vocal range. Fortunately, the role of Sylvia is conducive to a talk-sing style, so not much is lost, and Anderson’s acting prowess has already been noted.
“Ruthless! The Musical” with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird is produced by Altarena Playhouse and performed on their stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through April 30, 2023.