With glitz, glamour and a healthy amount of theatrical cynicism, Anthony Walker-Cook reviews Ruthless! The Musical and asks, despite its ability to tell jokes, if the cat really has claws.
Reviewing Ruthless! The Musical is awkward since it makes you realise the strict divide as a critic between a good night at the theatre and assessing the piece as a dramatic performance. Ruthless! undeniably fits into the former of these two categories with arguably little of the latter. As an experience of ‘the theatre’ (said, of course, in a posh voice) one cannot recommend this pastiche, camp and energetic production. But as a night out to enjoy some (or, perhaps, many) of the ironies of theatre culture, this new Arts Theatre production directed by Richard Fitch easily provides innumerable laughs.
I admit I knew little of Ruthless! going into the show, and what I did know suggested it was not my usual brand of gravitas and pathos (‘ahem’). But boy did I have fun. Critics have mostly reacted negatively towards the show: ‘It’s not got a strong plot’, they cry, or, ‘the numbers are forgettable’. Yet my feeling coming away from the show is perhaps that’s part of the point. Joel Paley’s book depicts a narrative where there are no surprises: the precocious Tina Denmark (played by four girls but on the night I saw it by Anya Evans) is a rising star, with her mother Judy (Kim Maresca) claiming to have ‘no talent’ and trying to encourage her daughter to stay in school. Enter Sylvia St Croix (Jason Gardiner), a talent agent, who, having seen Tina perform at an old people’s home, wants to represent the child and turn her into a Broadway actress. A prime opportunity for Tina’s first starring role appears when third-grade teacher Myrna Thorn (Harriet Thorpe) puts on Pippi in Tahiti, however she is not given the main part (which goes to Eve (Lara Denning)). To achieve her goals, Tina kills Eve, but she is discovered at the end of act one and is sent to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues whilst her mother miraculously finds her talent and becomes a Tony-Award winning Broadway diva, Ginger Del Marco. Insert Tina’s theatre-critic grandmother Lita Encore (Tracie Bennett), more Gypsy references than you can shake a feather boa at, and a rather messy second half that ends *huge spoiler alert* with everyone bar Tina dead and you have Ruthless! It’s Annie meets Gypsy and Carrie all roughly mixed together, and the cake that comes out is rather ungainly. If this all sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. The show never manages to extend out of this state of zaniness to offer more cogent points about pushy parents, theatre critics and, more broadly, musicals, yet the assembled cast do not let this issue cloud the comedy of the piece.
At the beginning of the musical Gardiner’s Croix comes out and opines on talent. Already boasting impressive roles from Les Misérables and Annie, there is no denying that Anya Evans has plenty of the stuff. From crystal-clear singing to vibrant tap dancing and feisty acting, the saccharine Evans was the standout performance. Next to Evans stars Gardiner in a role now traditionally performed by men in drag. For a celebrity casting Gardiner puts in a good performance: his singing and comedic timing are strong and, for the size of his heels, he dances well, though it is the ultimate irony of the show that Gardiner is upstaged by his younger co-star. Maresca’s beautiful singing voice and transition from timid housewife to Broadway baby demonstrates her familiarity with the role, having played the part off Broadway in 2015-16. Maresca’s voice, however, joins a chorus of wonderful singing and songs throughout the show. From singing ‘I’m Still Here’ in Follies at the National Theatre, Bennett’s rendition of ‘I Hate Musicals’ as a bow-legged, alcoholic theatre critic is dramatic and punchy (and I couldn’t help but appreciate some of the reasons for her apathy). Coated in regret, Thorpe’s Thorn has a great sense of comedy and her deflated imperative ‘sing out Louise’ is one of the many nods to Sondheim. Though only on stage for a short time, Denning stuns as first the talentless schoolgirl Eve and later as Louise Lerman, Maresca’s opportunistic PA, her solo ‘Penthouse Apartment’ an indictment of the cut-throat world of show-business.
As obvious from above, Ruthless! delights in bathetic references to other shows. Gypsy is similar in the themes of pushing parents and a troubled mother-daughter relationship between Judy and Tina (and Judy and Lita, amongst others). More references abound. Some references are overt: at one moment Bennett’s Lita shouts ‘I knew God would punish me for panning Fiddler’. Others are subtler, such as Morgan Large’s costume choice of having Gardiner come out dressed as Glenn Close’s Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Large’s two sets are simple and effective: in the first act we see the interior of the 1950s home, whilst in the second the piece shifts forward four years to Denmark’s apartment. The costumes are brilliant and capture the aesthetic of, dare I say it, otherwise somewhat tacky caricatures.
Did I mention at the end of the show everyone except Tina dies? Unlike the slow walk away at the end of Gypsy or the cry of ‘Oh God, it is tomorrow’ in Follies, Ruthless! offers little intimation of the traditionally bleak, Sondhemian future of Tina’s career. ‘There’s no money in theatre’ she cries. Don’t let the innumerable theatre references be off-putting; there’s enough slapstick, humour and foot-tapping numbers to keep you entertained throughout the evening. To be a strong, fully-realised satire, Ruthless! lacks a prolonged engagement with those forms, modes and caricatures. In that respect it is superficial and gaudy. But if Ruthless! has taught me anything, it is to try a show you don’t expect to like, for therein many treasures may lie. Ruthless? No. Enjoyable? Definitely.
Ruthless! The Musical is playing at the Arts Theatre until 23rd June 2018.