Wickedly funny musical Ruthless! is the irresistible chance to see a bevy of brilliant actresses in an intimate setting.
The Australian premiere of Ruthless! has the benefit of some updated touches from book and lyric writer Joel Paley, although the best references remain those to iconic favourites such as Mame, Gypsy and All About Eve. As well as being chock full of theatrical in-jokes and thinly veiled caricatures, a measure of the quality of Paley’s script is the way the scenario changes in act two and momentum continues apace with twists and turns right up until the final seconds of the show. The running gags are particularly funny, and help to ensure that an encyclopedic knowledge of theatre is not required to enjoy the show.
Marvin Laird’s music is immediately accessible and catchy, and big numbers are generously spread amongst all six cast members. Pointed parody “I Hate Musicals” is a highlight.
The lives of heretofore-innocent housewife and daughter Judy and Tina Denmark are changed forever upon the visitation of parasitic theatrical agent Sylvia St Croix. A suspiciously single third grade teacher, an ambitious personal assistant and a domineering grandmother, each ruthless in their own way, add to the ever-escalating hilarity.
Lisa Freshwater’s pacy direction respects the inherent humour of the piece by keeping performances well clear of over the top, allowing just a very subtle we’re-all-in-on-the-joke wink. Musical director Brad Miller leads a tight band of four, which adds many a quasi-melodramatic touch with percussive beats and dissonant chords at key moments of the story. The deliciously crisp tap beats of über-talented starlet Tina Denmark indicate that only one man can be behind the choreography: Christopher Horsey.
Mason Browne’s set design makes clever use of the tight space by use of a turntable for the central structure. The colour scheme is crisp and clear, with the progression in the story neatly reflected in the settings. Browne’s costumes also expertly support the storytelling and character development, and feature a number of devilishly witty flourishes.
Talented comedic actress Katrina Retallick anchors the production as simple housewife and mother Judy, our portal into this heightened showbiz world. Her crystalline soprano in lovely form, Retallick demonstrates again why she is such a likeable, engaging stage performer.
Meredith O’Reilly sinks her finely honed theatrical chops into the enigmatic Sylvia, landing all the laughs of this curiously driven woman. Margi de Ferranti expertly creates two distinct characters, driving much of act one as teacher-cum-Broadway writer/director Miss Block and cameoing as theatrical writer Myrna Thorne in act two. Caitlin Berry provides solid support as rival student Louise Lerman and nutty personal assistant Eve.
Key to the success of the show is the casting of demon seed Tina, and this production has struck gold with Jade Gillis, who is every bit as talented as Tina is meant to be (perhaps even more so). With a squeal that could break glass, Gillis conveys Tina’s burgeoning inner devil with ease, also matching comic delivery with her far more seasoned co-stars. (Gillis shares the role with Madison Russo.)
Worth the price of admission alone to longtime theatre fans will be the chance to see revered stage veteran Geraldine Turner back where she belongs. As vicious theatre critic Lita Encore, Turner has the perfect role to strut her considerable talents and she certainly does not disappoint. More future appearances from Ms Turner please!
Boutique music theatre at its best, a visit to Ruthless! is highly recommended, especially for those with a penchant for the camp classics it honours. A season at Melbourne’s Chapel-off-Chapel would be most welcome.
Ruthless! plays at Seymour Centre, Sydney, until 12 July 2014.
Photos: Blueprint Studios
This review published on Theatre People 26 June 2014