Music: Marvin Laird
Book and Lyrics: Joel Paley
Director: Richard Fitch
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
Watching off-Broadway comedy Ruthless! the Musical as it makes its central London debut, it’s hard to decide if one is watching a good musical pretend to be awful, or a truly terrible piece of theatre that’s decided to lean into its shortcomings.
It’s certainly one which may amuse those who work in and around theatre, as Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s comedy attempts to skewer the load of ambitious and over-earnest child performers. Anya Evans, in a role she shares with three others, steals scenes from the outset as Tina Denmark, a precocious child who, encouraged by both her 1950s-style housewife mother and her fiercely demanding manager, decides she will stop at nothing to acquire the lead role in the school musical, and all the concomitant fame that goes with stardom.
And if imagining what a young Bonnie Langford would have been like if she had been a murderous psychopath floats your boat, then Ruthless! may amuse. The difficulty is that what the show takes to be acerbic sideswipes at the theatre industry are both rather more genteel and substantially less original than the cast’s onstage behaviour would imply.
Of the adult cast, it is Kim Maresca, reprising her New York role as Tina’s mother Judy that best encapsulates the level at which Ruthless! works best. In her pinched waist dress, Maresca is the epitome of the Donna Reed Show-style housewife. It is a performance that is pitched at just the right level to allow the comedy to shine, and is nicely counterbalanced with Evans’s increasingly unhinged Tina. In a second act transformation, as Judy gains the fame that her daughter once craved, Maresca metamorphoses into an aloof persona that is similarly well placed.
Unfortunately, others in the principal cast go hell for leather in determining who will be the most over the top. Jason Gardiner in particular, playing agent Sylvia St Croix in glamorous drag, wastes no opportunity to turn every line in an opportunity to chew scenery. It is a performance which might work in panto: here, it merely screams “look at me” without worrying about how little there actually is to see.
Similarly, Tracie Bennett – an actress who have proven herself more than capable at mixing comedy with believable characters – resorts to caricature in her role as Judy’s mother, and bitter theatre critic, Lita Encore. Lita is dismissive and snooty about musicals, as evinced in a solo number that makes passing reference to many standards. As with the rest of Ruthless!’s satirical barbs, though, it is far less cutting than it imagines.
Visually, Act I is statically designed and lit, taking place on a single, florid living room set save for a few cutaways played in front of the curtain. The second act improves substantially, Morgan Large designing a swish Manhattan penthouse apartment on a budget and Tim Lutkin’s lighting accentuating some of the lacklustre plot’s eventual punchlines.
The band, under musical supervisor Gareth Valentine, is accomplished in its rendition of Laird’s music. But one wishes that there was more at play here than there is. To be truly sharp satire, the musical needs to be better than the stereotypes it supposes to despise. And ultimately, Ruthless! is toothless.
Continues until June 23 2018 | Image: Alistair Muir