Grade-School Skulduggery

There are wild eyes and grand gestures galore in Ruthless!, the musical that’s being revived at St. Luke’s Theatre on 46th Street. During its long run, the 1993 Off-Broadway creation, with book and lyrics by Joel Paley, who also directs, and music by Marvin Laird, introduced future stars Britney Spears, Natalie Portman and Laura Bell Bundy in the central role of a precocious child performer. The creators have updated their satire on runaway egos and the lust for fame and slimmed it to a 90-minute format that provides plenty of summer laughter.

“Where does talent come from?” asks casting agent Sylvia St. Croix in the brief prologue. “Is it a product of one’s environment—something you pick up off the street? Or is talent something you’re born with?” Those ruminations may promise depth of thought, but since Sylvia is played by a towering Peter Land in drag and a red fright wig, don’t expect a scientific analysis to follow. In short order, Sylvia has introduced herself into a chintz-choked parlor (designed by Josh Iacovelli), and is offering to represent little blond cutie Tina Denmark (a darkly determined Tori Murray, who has a terrific belt). Sylvia has spotted Tina’s talent during the kid’s performance at an old-age home.

Tina’s mother, Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca, dressed to resemble any number of 1950s TV housewives: e.g., Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet), is determined that her daughter have a normal childhood. But although Judy is content cooking meals and cleaning house, Tina herself has different ambitions: “I’ve had a normal childhood,” says the third grader. “It’s time to move on.” She adds in typically clever lyrics, “I was born to amuse/From the tip of my nose/To the tap of my shoes.” Sylvia chimes in with her own assessment of Tina’s abilities: “Well, it’s all banana splits when you’ve got talent/You don’t have to show your tits if you’ve got talent….” 

The plot revolves around secrets and complications: Sylvia doesn’t want to talk about whether she’s ever been a mother. Judy’s mother is a notorious critic, Lita Encore, as ruthless in her reviews as some actors are in their ambitions. She once savaged a play by Ruth DelMarco that sent the poor dramatist off a bridge—although DelMarco’s body was never recovered. Happily, Rita McKenzie, who created the role of Lita in the original Los Angeles production way back when, plays the bitchy fireplug with aplomb, and she has the best number—“I Hate Musicals.” Her presence adds a nice boost to the campfest.

The show is packed with sly references to both film and theater, and not always in the words: you might pick up a strain of a film studio’s well-known theme at the start, or a measure or two from Ain’t Misbehavin.’ Early in the show, Land throws back his head and widens his eyes à la Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard; late in the show a perky young assistant to a Broadway star appears, and her name is Eve Allabout (Tracy Jai Edwards). For those more deeply steeped in film lore, there’s a truly obscure reference to the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues. Nina Vartanian’s clever costumes—Judy wears a flared skirt, and there’s a prison outfit that works especially well on the performer who wears it—add nice visual humor.

The most crucial role is that of Tina, whom film buffs will recognize as a chip off Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed. Tina goes up for the leading role in the school musical, that of Pippi Longstocking in an adaptation by a teacher, Myrna Thorn (Andrea McCullough’s crypto-lesbian teacher is a walking textbook of tics and grimaces in a pantsuit). Tina isn’t chosen and she doesn’t take it well. She does, however, become the understudy to the girl who got the lead, and she learns the part on the very slim chance—but perhaps not that slim—that she’ll go on. (If you can’t deduce from the title The Bad Seed what happens next, you may be more comfortable at a real school play.)

Land is also persuasive as the manipulative agent with a personal secret. Though drag is not to everyone’s taste, it’s astonishingly effective here. The plot revels in silliness, the voices are uniformly good, and it's a pleasant way to spend a summer evening.

Ruthless! The Musical runs at St. Luke's Theatre (308 West 46th St. between 8th and 9th Aves.). on Mondays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Thursdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. For tickets, call Telecharge at 212-239-6200 or visit www.ruthlessthemusical.com.

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