Ruthless! The Musical, which recently got a rousing production at Westwego Performing Arts Theater, is often called a spoof. The play makes references to other dramas — including The Bad Seed, Mame, All About Eve and Gypsy — but Ruthless also is a descendant of the Marx Brothers and Alice In Wonderland. The Bard famously decreed that the drama should hold a mirror up to society. Ruthless holds up a fun-house mirror.
The characters in this comic melodrama are all caricatures, so the performers create entertaining bigger-than-life eccentrics. Director "Uncle" Wayne Daigrepont gathered an exceptional cast, who sang full throttle and clicked with the broad humor. Daigrepont kept the show moving at a brisk pace, but also managed to insert some wry details.
The story is staggeringly grotesque. Sylvia St. Croix (Alan Payne in haughty drag) introduces us to the Denmark family: Judy Denmark (Meredith Long) and her 8-year-old daughter Tina (Abigail Gardner) — a duo of delightful dynamos. The Denmarks live in the normal world, more or less. Their home is a somewhat bleak middle-class place. A note of surrealism sneaks in with Judy's wardrobe: a storybook-pink explosion of petticoats. She seems curiously overdressed since her main occupation is domestic work such as cleaning, cooking and the like.
Daughter Tina is driven by a fierce ambition to become a Broadway star. "I was born to entertain," she sings. She is aided and abetted by Sylvia, who wants to be her manager. Third grade teacher Myrna Thorn (Lisette Bayle) is casting the school play, "Pippi in Tahiti." Tina wants the title role, but that plum is given to Louise Lerman (Riley Reynolds), whose parents are important supporters of the school. Tina gets the humiliating part of Puddles, Pippi's dog, but under Sylvia's guidance, she agrees to be Louise's understudy. If anything should happen to Sylvia, Tina would get the lead, planting the germ of an evil plan in the rich soil of Tina's diabolic brain.
During rehearsal, Tina tells Louise she wants her part. Louise taunts her and laughs at her. Tina chases Louise to the catwalk above stage and hangs her with her jump rope. The complications of this Baroque narrative are just beginning, and lurking behind these lethal shenanigans is a back-story about genetics. Tina's mom was actually adopted. Lita Encore (Claire Conti), Tina's grandmother, shows up. She's a caustic drama critic who wrote a book called Ruthless: The Life and Times of Ruth Del Marco. She wrote it partly in penitence, because the diva Del Marco committed suicide after a cutting review by Lita.
It turns out that Lita picked up Judy as a child she found abandoned in Del Marco's dressing room. Judy drops the domesticity, along with the campy housedress and goes into show biz herself as Ginger Del Marco. She's a sort of narcissistic Lady Bracknell (from The Importance of Being Earnest) thrust into overdrive by the call of stardom.
Tina comes back from the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues and the past continues to unravel. Sylvia — the cross-dressing manager — pulls off her black wig and reveals that she is, in fact, the missing Ruth Del Marco. Eve (Brian Rosenberg) has taken a job as Judy Denmark's/Ginger Del Marco's maid. She's an obvious All About Eve type of character, who has her eye on taking over for Ginger. The final confrontations are gratuitously and hilariously overdone.
Composer Marvin Laird and lyricist Joel Paley filled their 1993 Off Broadway hit with many bouncy tunes. Curiously, though, there are few dance numbers. In the Westwego production, the songs rode along on a good pit band with two pianos, bass and percussion under the musical direction of Roland "Butch" Caire. Bruce Turgeon's costumes and wigs were bold and effective.