The very best thing I can say about Ruthless! The Musical, and it’s a compliment, is that it’s the camp musical for people who hate camp musicals. Offered in an open-ended run of 4 perfs a week at St Luke’s on 46th Street (a unique house which allows disparate, unrelated shows to run in a kind of repertory), this revival of the 1992 musical is a mash-up spoof, satirizing elements of stage mother stories like Gypsy and evil child stories like The Bad Seed. What makes it different from most camp musicals is that its campiness is not a pretext for naughty homosexual humor—this despite that one of its lead all-female roles is usually played by an extravagant character man in drag—but genuine genre send-up on its own terms. (That said, there’s certainly a gay sensibility, but borne of diva worship and loving the affiliated show business tropes, not cheap phallic-centric humor; if you’ll forgive the oxymoron, Ruthless plays its lampooning straight.) Another thing that distinguishes it is a well-crafted score. It doesn’t go anyplace new, but its music by Marvin Laird is attractive and catchy; its lyrics by Joel Paley honor well-built arguments, wit and perfect rhyme; and its book…
…well, okay, its book, also by Paley. Witty, as far as these things go, a little preposterous, as to be expected…but if you’re not reveling in the revelry (and I must admit, most people in the audience were, night I attended), you’re kind of done with it 30 minutes into its 90 intermissionless minutes. As with most camp, the strength is in introducing the familiar character and plot tropes to be lampooned with enough wit and affection to get the audience on board. But the lampooning gets increasingly harder to sustain, because bereft of a real plot, there’s only a cobbled together stand-in for a plot, which is the joke target; which means the longer the show goes on, the more diluted the storytelling becomes and the more the actors invest in pumping up attitude, because it becomes less and less possible to play for real stakes, and the target harder to see. And in fact, the whole (former) second act of Ruthless (which no longer has an intermission) is actually, pointedly built around the conceit of plot disintegrating into existential absurdity; where Ruthless, in its (former) Act One, just winks at the audience, in its (former) Act Two, it puts on the gag glasses with the bouncing eyeballs, as if to say, There’s no real closure here, let’s just party. Rather like the end sequence of Blazing Saddles, but on the super cheap, production-value wise.
But it’s all sharply delivered—again, as in its debut, directed by Paley—and he has a crackerjack cast aiding and abetting him: Tori Murray as the ambitious child star to be (a genuine, charismatic child and scarily in control of her professional toolkit), Kim Maresca as her hapless mother, plus Andrea McCullough, and Rita McKenzie (a veteran of the original production). Unseen by me, there is now also Paul Pecorino in the role of the obsessive agent and coach, Sylvia St Croix (traditionally the drag role), who has taken over from the excellent Peter Land who withdrew (temporarily, one hopes) for (genuine) medical reasons. Basically, Ruthless: the Musical is what it is; and if you go expecting exactly what I’ve described, the chances are slim that you’ll be disappointed. And not bad that you'll be taken with its giddiness. You may even laugh. Out loud.
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