Beck Center for the Art’s ‘Ruthless!’ goes for broke, pays huge dividends
By Bob Abelman
One can only imagine the dead silence in the room when lyricist Joel Paley and composer Marvin Laird pitched their idea for “Ruthless!” to off-Broadway investors back in 1992.
It probably matched the silence that engulfed the Beck Center for the Arts’ boardroom when artistic director Scott Spence pitched this show for the main stage season opener.
“Ruthless!” is an outrageously campy, thoroughly self-aware musical comedy mash-up of late-1950s and early-1960s psychological thriller films that simultaneously pokes fun at its muses.
The show revolves around a precocious song-and-dance sociopath named Tina Denmark, played to perfection by 11-year-old triple threat Calista Zajac, who knocks off a rival in her grade-school play in order to land the lead role. Like her character’s inspiration – the similarly named Rhoda Penmark in the film “The Bad Seed” – young Zajac’s feigned syrupy sweetness seamlessly transitions into the death stare of a natural born killer.
If you ever wondered what ever happened to Baby Jane in the film about a deranged former child actress played by Betty Davis, well, here’s the backstory.
The show also borrows from “Gypsy,” where consummate stage mother Rose – played on Broadway by the likes of Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, and originally, Ethel Merman – introduces her daughters to the hardships of show business.
In “Ruthless!” Tina’s vacant-eyed, homemaker mom Judy – portrayed by silver-throated and downright hilarious Lindsey Mitchell – turns diva and distant when she learns from her mother that she was adopted and (in another nod to “The Bad Seed”) that her birth parents were show business legends.
What may well have sold this show to the Beck Center’s board of directors is director William Roudebush’s promise to go for broke regarding this musical’s camp quotient, which he delivers in spades and most distinctively in his casting of Sylvia St. Croix, the talent agent/publicist who takes young Tina under her wing.
Armed with Davis’s formidability, adorned in makeup applied with a spatula by Baby Jane’s cosmetologist, and imbued with Patti LuPone’s extraordinary sense of self is the classically trained actor Matthew Wright in drag, who steals the show.
Not an easy task considering the other talent that rounds out the ensemble and their displays of impeccable comic timing.
Paying homage to Ethel Merman is the wonderful Carla Petroski as Judy’s mom, Lita Encore, who is a caustic theater critic that once caused famous actress Ruth DelMarco to kill herself after a particularly negative review, leaving the Great White Way forever … ruthless. Even if the show’s thinly camouflaged show biz in-jokes go underappreciated or unrecognized, the more subtle ones – like Encore’s clever signature song “I Hate Musicals,” which comes with an encore – most certainly will not.
Kate Leigh Michalski is a delight as the boozy and bitter Miss Thorn, who is a failed actress that has reluctantly fallen back on teaching third-grade drama. Her “Teaching Third Grade” number is sidesplitting. Also delightful is Brittni Shambaugh Addison as the envious and backstabbing personal aide to the now-famous Judy Denmark.
All this is accentuated by Eisenhower-era scenic design by Aaron Benson, resulting in a stylized playhouse of a home for the Denmarks in Act 1 and its posh New York apartment equivalent in Act 2. Like-minded costuming is designed by Aimee Kluiber and lighting that quickly shifts from ambient to melodramatic to sinister and back again comes courtesy of Marcus Dana.
The one disappointment in this otherwise spectacular production is that it is accompanied by piano only, under Larry Goodpaster’s direction, rather than a full orchestra. This offers thin support to the songs and their singers. Worse, it flies in face of Roudebush’s “go big or go home” mantra and occasionally undermines the key ingredient that lifts silly to a higher art form.
Fortunately, there is enough outrageousness in this show and these performances to go around. CV
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through Oct. 16
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or visit beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow him at facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 23, 2016.
Lead image: Lindsey Mitchell, from left, Matthew Wright and Calista Zajac. PHOTO | Kathy Sanham