It’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? via The Omen in Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’s garish parody musical about a viciously competitive child star. First seen Off-Broadway in the early ’90s, Ruthless! has earned itself a weak cult badge thanks to Britney Spears and Natalie Portman understudying for the lead ingénue Tina. Thankfully, lovely Spears and Portman were not so hard-nosed in pursuit of stardom as Tina turns out to be, and the role’s originator Laura Bell Bundy is still alive and killing it on the Legally Blonde soundtrack.
The musical is a fun, fringe idea that should last about an hour but that’s been extended to over two, with the inane second half shifting from our brattish prodigy to her wider family. There is so much repetition that it is hard to single out not only songs but performances. Tina’s theatre critic gran Lita (Tracie Bennett), agent (Jason Gardiner), and assistant Eve (Lara Denning) all play some form of stumbling drunk, crashing around, legs a-waggling and drinks a-spilling. Richard Fitch’s direction is true to the works being mocked – here are the large gestures of Mame, the diva struts of Gypsy – but the slapstick needs to be much tighter to appear purposeful rather than sloppy.
Exceptional in her relative sobriety, Kim Marcesa is extraordinary. As Tina’s mother Judy she is a rictus-grinning housewife with bizarre valium-fueled ad-libs that almost enough to convince you that the show is actually pretty good. Anya Evans’ Tina (she’s one of four performers who rotate the role) is also brilliantly demonic in her Mary Sunshine-via-Mary Bell unnerving stare. Her saccharine creepiness is interspersed with tap dancing good enough to make you feel she was rather justified in taking out her inferior opposition. That she gets so little to do after the interval apart from the wide-eyed ‘There’s More to Life’ (which needs a good deal more ham and less syrup) is a crime much worse than the one she is ultimately convicted of in the plot.
Morgan Large’s costumes are suitably gaudy and frothy, the mimicking of Judy’s ’50s big-skirted florals in her horrible wallpaper an excellent touch. It is interesting, though, that the decision was made to go 1950s in the aesthetic when the story could have easily worked (and potentially been far more brutal) in modern times (have you SEEN Dance Moms?!). Perhaps it felt a natural fit due to the heyday of the classic musicals Ruthless! is based on, but all that chintz doesn’t help when its cut-throat-ness is spectacularly bloodless.
Who on earth is this musical for? A clue comes in bitter critic (BRB – just practicing getting my hair up in a similar poodle-do, solely to block the view of those behind me) Lita’s number ‘I Hate Musicals’, where she skits on everything from rapping out the Von Trapps to waving the flag in Les Mis. Ruthless! should appeal to musical and MGM aficionados, who will instantly pick up on every reference from The Bad Seed to Mommy Dearest. But instead the jokes too frequently punch down in a manner that just doesn’t match the genre. Anyone whose seen my dress sense will know that I am a huge fan of tasteless, but when the cheap shots keep coming (Jew joke, sexual harassment joke, lesbian joke) and without diversity (in the delivery or the casting), it quickly becomes tiresome.
Ruthless! is not a musical about hothousing child stars, or the heavy burden talent can be when weighed against family expectation and the cruelty of showbiz. It’s a rather nasty warning of the perils of female ambition; there is only apparently room for one spotlight, with mothers and daughters prepared to push each other into the orchestra pit to steal it. I do not take issue at all with women playing characters without redeeming features – everyone loves to watch and play a villain – but if you are going to stage a bitch-fight, make the prize worth fighting for.
Ruthless! The Musical is at the Arts Theatre until June 23rd. For more details, click here.