Summer stock goes spoof Review: A musical show business parody, 'Ruthless,' provides a clever, offbeat evening of fun.

June 27, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Ruthless" -- a musical about a homicidal child actress -- has to be nasty and has to be nice.

At Theatre on the Hill, where the show is receiving its area premiere, director Josh Selzer's production succeeds in being a little of both.

Something of a cult off-Broadway hit in 1992, "Ruthless" is an unconventional choice for this small summer-stock theater, in residence at Western Maryland College. If musical theater fans arrive expecting traditional fare on the order of "Gypsy" or "Applause," they're going to be surprised.

But they'll also have fun because those two shows are among the musicals and movies spoofed by this irreverent parody, which has music by Marvin Laird and a libretto by Joel Paley.

The action begins with Tina Denmark, a suburban third-grader eager to play the lead in her school play, "Pippi in Tahiti." But the role goes to the daughter of the folks supplying the materials for the sets and costumes.

Little Tina, who is described as "the perfect 8-year-old" in her mother's opening song, might have been able to handle this rejection if it weren't for the objections of a mysterious stranger who insists she can make Tina a star.

The message that "Ruthless" is a put-on is delivered loud and clear from the start, when the opening lines are spoken by the stranger, whose name is Sylvia and who is played in this production -- as in the original -- by an actor in drag.

As Charlie Smith's comically grande-dame portrayal of Sylvia alerts us, no one on stage is going to be exactly what he/she appears. And sure enough, it's not only sweet, adorable Tina -- played by bouncy, ringlet-haired Allison Weiner -- who turns out to defy first impressions.

As portrayed by hyper-perky Deb Spielman, Tina's mom starts out so blissfully domestic, she seems like a singing Stepford wife. By act two, however, she's found her true calling, changed her name to Ginger and turned into a temperamental Broadway star who embodies every prima donna cliche rolled into one.

Though much more happens in the second act than the first, the show drags after intermission -- possibly because, despite the increased activity, most of it is highly predictable.

But some enjoyably campy touches occur throughout the evening, chief among them, such corny lines as: "I'll be waiting in the wings when Ginger snaps," spoken by Ginger's assistant, Eve, in a salute to "Applause" and its source, "All About Eve."

The campiness carries over into the physical production. Ira Domser's detailed set designs feature a portrait of Tina with eyes that glow bright red when the child realizes what she needs to do to win the lead in the school play.

Denise C. Umland's costume designs are equally detailed, right down to the fuzzy dice hanging from the hat of a character named Miss Block, who wears a yellow-and-black, taxi-inspired outfit and answers the phone, "Y'ello!"

Although the performances are somewhat uneven, the cast captures the show's sense of silliness. All bias aside, this critic harbors a particular fondness for Susan Thornton's snooty portrayal of Tina's grandmother, Lita, a woman who "positively hates anything to do with show business -- she's a theater critic."

If that's so, what better recommendation than that Lita would hate "Ruthless," which shamelessly exults in the show business lore it sends up?

"Ruthless," of course, is all about show business, which means venomous Lita would surely hate it. And that alone should be ample reason to see it.

'Ruthless'

Where: Theatre on the Hill, Western Maryland College, Alumni Hall, Westminster

When: 8 p.m. today, tomorrow, Saturday and July 5 and 6

Tickets: $17

Call: (410) 857-2599

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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