Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Ruthless! The Musical"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


book and lyrics by Joal Paley; music by Marvin Laird

directed by Larry Coen

Sylvia St. Croix … Will McGarrahan
Judy Denmark … Kathy St. George
Tina Denmark … Kristen Parker
Miss Thorn; Miss Block … Andrea Lyman
Louise; Eve … Michelle Damigella
Lita Encore … Margaret Ann Brady


Conductor/Keyboards … Jeanne Munroe

The SpeakEasy Stage Company may soon become the envy of the Boston theatre scene: not only does its award-winning BATBOY: THE MUSICAL continue to run ad infinitum, the company scores again with its latest production, RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, also playing at the Boston Center for the Arts; creators Joel Paley and Marvin Laird chose the company to test a revision of their 1993 off-Broadway hit which is bound for New York and London’s West End. By now, “SpeakEasy” means the finest musical productions in the area, regardless of the material itself, and actor/playwright/director Larry Coen has done RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL up proud; the Messrs. Paley and Laird, no doubt, will be delighted.

Fasten your seatbelts --- it’s gonna be a campy night: eight-year-old Tina Denmark, a singing/dancing phenomenon, has her heart set on the title role in her school musical, “Pippi [Longstocking] in Tahiti”. When a talentless rival gets the plum, the ruthless Tina kills her to the dismay of Judy Denmark, her sitcom-ish mother, and the approval of Sylvia St. Croix, Tina’s equally ruthless agent-to-be and Woman with a Past. No prizes if you guess RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL to be a blend of THE BAD SEED and GYPSY; the Messrs. Paley and Laird throw in ALL ABOUT EVE and AUNTIE MAME for good measure. “Good” may not be the correct word; Act Two bogs down when all the divas start to collide, and the agreeably bitchy songs tend to all run together after awhile (no hit tunes, here). Still, there’s fun to be had at RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL; it may not be your tired businessman’s show, but a weary hairdresser will think it’s a hoot.

The Messrs. Paley and Laird were wise to choose SpeakEasy for a testing ground, not only because of the company’s sterling reputation but because its residence is the BCA, whose Black Box Theatre provides the closest thing to a piano bar where RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL would ideally flourish --- when the lights dim at the start of Act Two and Janie Howland’s set design becomes a city skyline at night, all the cozy atmosphere needs are waiters bearing drinks to make the illusion complete. RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL is more revue than musical with its sole piano, its “in” jokes and its close proximity to its audience; to mount it onto a proscenium stage and keep the audience at a distance would only expose it as the trash that it is (“trash” in a fun sense); the characters’ extravagance must come from their over-the-top personalities, not from six performers being obliged to fill up a vast, over-amplified stage. (Mr. Coen’s own EPIC PROPORTIONS suffered that fate last year --- a bastard sketch being trotted out as a legitimate play).

Once again, SpeakEasy has come up with an impressive cast; Will McGarrahan, who dazzled as Michael Bennett in its production of A CLASS ACT, is now old-fashioned Camp on the half shell as the stylishly grotesque Sylvia St. Croix (should SpeakEasy get the rights to HAIRSPRAY, here’s a contender for the role of Edna Turnblad). How fascinating to watch the difference between men and women camping it up: Mr. McGarrahan performs from the outside in, all glitter and surface; the five actresses perform from the inside out and know when to subtly point to a smile or a belly laugh and when to broadly poke at their gender (no pun intended). Margaret Ann Brady, Michelle Damigella and Andrea Lyman each get a chance to stop the show with a Broadway belter (the score is mostly solos), and they do, they do; Ms. Damigella, as the doomed rival, has an amusing bit with the very jump rope that will hang her (as the off-stage killing draws near, the audience grows silent; there are some things that resist mirth, and murder is one of them --- we must turn off our hearts in order to laugh; this is the cruel side of Camp). Sweet-faced Kristen Parker, on her way to young womanhood, is several years too old as little Tina (unless the age difference itself is meant to be Camp) but she sings and dances well enough and has taken to Mr. Coen’s knowing direction (Haylee Shrimpton, who recently played in Ryan Landry’s production of THE BAD SEED, could teach Ms. Parker how to be funny and disturbing at the same time.) I have seen Kathy St. George perform several times in the past; were I to create a character based on those performances, I would call her “Rosalind Rustle”; Ms. St. George is a wee ball of energy that stops short of bouncing through hoops --- happily, all that rustle doesn’t become grating but I would like to see Ms. St. George slow down and take on something with depth; she has an underlying poignancy that would do well in Chekhov or Williams --- and not musicalized versions, either. Ms. St. George owns the most precious moment of the evening: as the talentless mother who realizes she has boffo genes in her after all, Ms. St. George ends Act One by transforming herself into a beloved gay icon down to the last twitching mannerism; her impersonation lends a few heartbeats to the broadsides because they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. That is Camp at its best --- a sort of time capsule or archive; The Way Women Were….

A palm each goes to Gail Astrid Buckley for her zany, Pop costumes and to Jeanne Munroe, who bangs out a mean, non-stop piano (she should keep a snifter on the piano; she would get a few bills from happy customers on the way out).

After seeing and enjoying RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL, would main stream audiences want to venture into the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts to witness Mr. Landry’s equally funny film parodies? (Mr. Landry and his Gold Dust Orphans are currently in Provincetown performing in THE GULLS, Mr. Landry’s reworking of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS; I’m assuming he will bring his show to town this autumn.) I sense, though, that much of RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL’s audience as well as its reviewers will continue to not set foot inside the Ramrod even if the Messrs. Paley and Laird chose to test their revision there, which lends weight to my theory that much of a show’s success boils down to Location, Location, Location.

"Ruthless! The Musical" (6-28 June)
539 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-2787

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide