With stardom and the ever-present celebrity culture plaguing our world today, à la famous families such as the Kardashians, the relationship between “momager” and talent takes the crown when it comes to merciless behavior in the fight to the top. The obsession with fame and fortune has only escalated since 1992, when Ruthless! The Musical first premiered, and now this Off-Broadway revival treats modern audiences to a heaping helping of bratty and manipulative behavior, presented in the sweetest of packages.
Drawing on classic musicals such as Gypsy and Mame, and slightly modifying character names from iconic films, Ruthless! makes it easy for audiences to make the connection – with references to All About Eve (hello Eve Allabout) and The Bad Seed (Penmark suddenly results in Denmark). While the production is chock full of comical moments and quick comebacks, at times the need for a laugh feels forced, as actors over-emphasize facial expressions to drive the point home.
Ruthless! finds quite a talent in youngster Tori Murray who plays Tina Denmark, a third-grader with the face of an angel and a devilish streak, born-ready for her close-up. Her confidence and sass dominate the stage, as early on as her first number “Born to Entertain” making it clear who is boss. Cautious and protective housewife and mother to Tina, Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca) who claims she doesn’t know where her daughter’s talent comes from is the voice of reason in the family, as Tina’s father is continuously absent, and she does her best to ensure that her impressionable child doesn’t fall prey to the pitfalls of fame. When saucy and over-the-top talent agent, Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land) comes calling, she insists that Tina does whatever it takes to secure the lead in the third-grade play, even if it means taking down classmate, Louise Lerman (Traci Jai Edwards) in the process. Land is spot-on in the portrayal of this larger-than-life talent agent who has no problem stepping in and showing everyone “how it is done” with flawless numbers such as “Talent” and “I Want the Girl.”
The musical numbers are well-timed and snappy, with book and lyrics by the gifted Joel Paley, who also directs, and music by Broadway conducting veteran Marvin Laird. Proud grandmother and legendary theater critic Lita Encore (Rita McKenzie) doesn’t hold back as she belts out “I Hate Musicals” despite Tina’s lead role in her grade school’s production. Even washed-up actress turned third-grade theater director, Miss Thorn (Andrea McCullough), provides an important lesson in life after showbiz. Costume design provided by Nina Vartanian brings each character’s personality to life, from the perfect spiral curls and immaculate polka dot dress worn by Tina (reminiscent of Shirley Temple) to the pressed apron and delicate pearls making up Judy’s uniform, that would make the most upstanding housewife proud.
Audiences, modern and older, will get a kick out of Ruthless! It’s an entertaining choice that will thrill the grown-ups as they reflect on the classic showbiz industry and share the fun with a younger generation well-versed in the “stage mom” era portrayed in popular reality shows. A fabulous choice for a night out with a storyline that will continue to resonate with generations to come!
Ruthless! The Musical (extended through September 10, 2016)
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street, just west of Eighth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.RuthlessTheMusical.com.
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Ninety minutes of non-stop entertainment and laughter. Don’t let the innocence of a sweet face fool you – something ruthless lurks within that has captivated audiences for decades!