Across the pond, Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s Ruthless The Musical has been doing the rounds for a good quarter of a century, gaining notoriety when former understudies Britney Spears and Natalie Portman went on to bigger and brighter things, which is kind of ironic given the plot of this whimsical comedy musical. Now it takes to the London stage at the Arts Theatre under the direction of Richard Fitch.
Tina, an eight-year old girl dreams of stardom, and while she has a mentor in the form of Sylvia St Croix, her mild-mannered mother Judy may be about to snatch it all away from her. There’s also the pesky problem of Louise Lerman (Lara Denning) who has been cast in the lead role of the school play, but Tina isn’t as sweet as she appears, and when push comes to shove she can be ruthless.
Let’s get this out of the way, if you go along expecting Hamlet you’re going to be very disappointed. Ruthless isn’t pretending to be something it’s not, it’s side-splittingly silly and filled with pantomime humour that requires no effort of the audience’s part. For a couple of hours, it’s possible to switch your brain to autopilot and enjoy the camp melodrama as it unfolds in escalating absurdity.
If someone nearby is laughing and you don’t know why, they’ve just spotted another one of the countless nods to, and parodies of, Broadway musicals and movies; everything from Book of Mormon to Gypsy, if you miss a few don’t worry, I stopped trying to count.
Don’t mistake all this fun for trash, because Ruthless The Musical is filled to the brim with outstanding performances from a stellar cast. We have Harriet Thorpe, delivering each line with such dead-pan perfection it’s a treat every time she walks on stage, while Tracie Bennett can literally do no wrong, playing the caustic theatre critic Lita Encore, she delivers hilarious one liners, and a superb number about hating musicals.
What Jason Gardiner lacks in feminine grace as Sylvia St Croix, he makes up for with a fabulous pout and rather impressive singing voice. Kim Maresca, who has played the role of Judy Denmark off-Broadway, proves that it was worth getting her to reprise the role in London, from her porcelain facial expressions straight out of the Stepford Wives, to that incredible singing voice, every minute she is on stage is delightful.
But the star of the show has to be young Tina Denmark, on our evening played superbly by Anya Evans, who manages to take the role of precocious child to whole new levels. This Shirley Temple meets Regan from The Exorcist will leave you crying with laughter.
Morgan Large’s set is comprised of a colourful 1950’s suburban home (think Audrey’s vision of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’) which is transformed, in the second act, to a towering New York penthouse. Great attention to detail has also been paid to the costumes, which are as bright and colourful as the plot.
Ruthless The Musical is a satisfyingly scathing self-parody that seems to have struck a chord with the audience, I overheard comments like ‘It’s so funny’ and ‘I’m loving this’ at the interval, and I have to admit, I was laughing heartily for the majority of the performance. This may not be Shakespeare, but it’s good old-fashioned fun wrapped up in a colourful bow of pure sass.