Get out your leopard spandex and feather boas, your cigarette holders and gold lame, and go see Ruthless!, Joel Paley and Marvin Laird's musical spoof at the Colony Theater that outcamps the campiest melodramas and show-biz films in the movie canon. But before you go, consider making a trip to the video store (or at least consult Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide) to bone up on the absurd plot twists and killer lines from The Bad Seed, Mildred Pierce, All About Eve, and a dozen other infamous films. All the old favorites are resurrected in Paley's reference-laden book for Ruthless! wherein Joan Crawford meets John Waters meets Gypsy's Mama Rose for a wickedly gleeful sendup of three generations of women lusting to see their names on a marquee.
Hugh M. Murphy opens the show in drag as Sylvia St. Croix, a stage name changed, we are told, from Sylvia St. Sidney, in deference to the veteran movie actress. In an outlandish black-and-white outfit and with exaggerated mannerisms, Sylvia poses the question of the evening: What is talent? The scene then shifts to the suburban living room of Judy Denmark, the cookie-baking, syrupy-sweet mother of Tina, an eight-year-old Shirley Temple/Linda Blair (in The Exorcist) hybrid born to entertain. Judy wants to shield Tina from the excesses of show business ("booze, pills, heavy meals late at night") by providing her with a normal childhood. But Tina has other plans. "I've had a normal childhood," she tells her mother. "It's time to move on." Her drive to secure the lead in the school play is taken up by Sylvia, who has descended on the household, offering her services as Tina's manager. By the end of act one, there's been one murder committed in the name of ambition, one transformation from placid housewife into rabid singing-and-dancing sensation, and a host of theatrical caricatures skewered, from stage mother to child star to manager to theater critic. Act two opens two years later in New York City, where the references, music, and gags continue, right up to a gloriously silly conclusion.
Before arriving on Miami Beach, Ruthless! A winner of an Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway musical -- amused audiences through long runs in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Writer, lyricist, and director Paley and composer Laird smartly re-create each production wherever they go, often using local artists to give each run a native flavor. They transported Lawrence Miller's appropriately tacky set design from the L.A. version (polka dot and gingham Middle America living room in act one, art-deco big-city penthouse with an All About Eve staircase in act two), and Nick Venden from Chicago as the conductor of the excellent live trio that provides all the music from the Colony's pit. But they engaged artist and Miami resident Romero Britto to make his costume-designing debut, and his splendid ensembles for Sylvia earn applause every time she browbeats her way onto the stage. The cast is all Floridian.
Delivery is everything in a show of this sort, and the six actors, some taking on more than one role, whip out the one-liners and hoof through the song-and-dance numbers with a deft balance of dementia and savoir-faire. Robyn Hackett, Cyrilla Baer, and Liana Harris lampoon their various supporting characters with relish. Hugh M. Murphy's tall, bony frame is part Diana Vreeland, part Wicked Witch of the West -- just right for the scheming Sylvia. The fact that he doesn't have enough voice to carry Sylvia's gutsy numbers is a bit disappointing, but all is forgiven, because his timing, gestures, and facial expressions are so brazenly funny. As for Meghan Garson (Tina): Where did they find such a perfectly obnoxious precocious child? Coral Springs, apparently. Garson effortlessly takes hairpin turns from cute to voracious and back again as she pushes Tina to the top, singing in a voice as big as the theater itself. But Margot Moreland, as Tina's mother, is the actress of the evening, delivering a consummate musical comedy performance that includes the discovery of her own "inherited, unstoppable" talent that is a hoot.
We're not talking profound theater here. Paley's plot is predictably convoluted, his dialogue shamelessly lifted, his gags of the do-anything-for-a-laugh sort. And Laird's musical numbers are unvarying versions of brassy, Ethel Mermanesque paeans to show business. But the cast pulls it off with audacious exuberance, egged on by the pleasure of the audience, and that's the fun of it.
For another musical about show biz, one almost as self-referential as Ruthless! but with an entirely different slant, check out The Bialy Sisters: Hot Swing With a Little Schmaltz, premiering at Actors' Playhouse in Kendall. Chock full of Yiddish lore, war-effort allusions, Brooklyn memories, and 1940s music, it's designed to take us back to the days when live shows played between newsreels and feature films at the ten-cent theater on the corner, the days when ethnic was not hip.
Set in Brooklyn's Lowes Pitkin movie theater and Manhattan's Paramount Theater in 1943, it's the story of a Jewish girl group, four sisters attempting to cross the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, from ethnic to all-American, from chicken fat on rye to mayonnaise on white. Termed too Jewish by their manager, who books them into the Paramount anyway, they try to bleach blond their act, but ultimately their Yiddish roots show through.
I caught the sister act in previews. In fact, it was the first preview of the world premiere of what director David Arisco told the audience was essentially a work in progress destined, he hoped, through tightening and polishing, to go on to a long life of productions in many other cities on many others stages. Technical difficulties still were being ironed out, the authors (librettist Isidore Elias, lyricist Annie Dinerman, and composer Annie Lebeaux, down from New York throughout the rehearsal process) and director Arisco sitting in the back making notes about what to trim and how to control the pacing, but the show, essentially a musical revue with the sisters' story woven throughout, was in great shape for its official debut two days away.
Because I saw the show before its press opening, I won't presume to give it a full critique, except to say that despite the awkward integration of a story with the singing-and-dancing act, the musical numbers are enjoyable, with Wendy Baila (Edel), in particular, sultry on the swing numbers. Overall, the evening is a lot more schmaltz than swing, but it offers a nostalgic look at an era that seems simultaneously more repressive and more innocent than our own.
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