Acting up: From left, Julia Goodwin, Suzanne Tiffault and Adrienne Foster in the Talent Company’s Ruthless! The Musical.
We know she reveres Gone with the Wind even as she laughs at it. So it is with the legendary spoof Ruthless, which
takes aim at four shows as well as some bedrock conventions. Yes,
legendary, even though the first production opened only in 1992. For
the cast of the original show about a murderous understudy taking over
a lead, the actual understudies were two unknown child performers named
Britney Spears and Natalie Portman. The stylish Talent Company mounting
of Ruthless, now at the State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater, packs comparable reserves of the unexpected.
Even though Ruthless is a feast
for musical theater buffs, it contains precious few in-jokes. If you
can’t remember what the relationship was between Mama Rosa and Baby
June, you’re never left out. Much of the first act takes aim at Jerry
Herman’s Mame and Jule Styne’s Gypsy with heavy swipes at Maxwell Anderson’s drama The Bad Seed. With a change of scene in the second act the jokes trend toward the movie All About Eve rather than the Strouse, Comden and Green musicalization of it, Applause.
The time of Ruthless is before
1963 because telephone exchanges still began with words, “Chestnut
9-5230,” and bouffant hairdos came with tiny bows. Judy Denmark (Julia
Berger), a complaisant housewife out of Leave It to Beaver, is
the mother of ferociously ambitious 8-year-old Tina (Julia Goodwin),
who announces, “I was born to enter-TAY-yayn.” Arriving unexpectedly is
a large, overbearing talent agent dressed in leopard, Sylvia St. Croix
(Jimmy Curtin), who pushes Tina to audition for the lead in the school
play Pippi in Tahiti, as in Pippi Longstocking. Teacher
and frustrated actress Myrna Thorn (Suzanne Tiffault) has already cast
the spectacularly untalented Louise Lerman (Adrienne Foster) in the
role. Soon Tina leads Louise on to a catwalk above the stage where the
first choice to play Pippi “accidentally” hangs herself.
Arriving just in time for Tina’s opening is Judy’s
mother, viper-tongued critic Lita Encore (Christine Lightcap), who
screams that she hates musicals. When chided that she has panned a show
without having seen it she responds in one of Ruthless’ more
memorable lines: “So what? I woudda hated it anyway!” In a series of
revelations we learn that Judy’s mother was a once-famous Broadway
star, Ruth Del Marco, who is believed to have committed suicide because
of the critical thrashing she had received from Lita.
How Ruth happened to disappear is one of several contributions to the title in this pun-laden show, ahem, Ruth-less. Deeper, of course, is the drive for success, to “make it,” that’s part of hundreds of musicals from 42nd Street to Billy Elliot. Tina sets the tone when she growls, brandishing her fists, that she’ll do anything to get the right role. As a child, we learn, she’s only begun to taste the all-consuming ambition that eats at every adult.
Director Dan Tursi demonstrates his
flair for spoof comedy, while award-winning music director Josh Smith
honors the mostly throwaway songs. Still, this production of Ruthless would
have been impossible without the discovery of Baldwinsville elementary
school student Julia Goodwin, who brings the ferocity of a musical
bulldog. A finalist for Mary Poppins in New York City, Goodwin
can do it all: sing, dance and deliver snappy lines. But more of the
action in the show is dominated by lovely Julia Berger, previously seen
as a leading lady with other companies. Berger has the best musical
chops of anyone in the show and turns out to be a gifted light
comedienne, constantly getting laughs from her hyper-cheerful response
to a ringing telephone, “I’ll get it!”
The role of Sylvia was written for an
imposing woman, but when a guy named Joel Vig wowed producers at the
original audition, it became a drag role. Jimmy Curtin, last seen as a
tap-dancing storm trooper in The Producers, brings all the campy intensity of Susan Hayward crossed with Gloria Swanson. He/she also puts the light fantastic on high heels.
This newspaper long ago dubbed the Talent Company “the MGM of local theater,” and the posh look of Ruthless continues
to merit that mantle. Every scene change brings a new Jeanette Reyner
costume, most of them parodies of long-ago fashion. Among the most fun
are the oversize outfits for Jimmy Curtin as Sylvia, but the most
glamorous adorn svelte company honcho Christine Lightcap as Lita Encore.
This production runs through April 25. See Times Table for information.