How far should you go to make your dreams come true? Is talent a blessing or a curse? Why do 8-year-olds kill? These are just some of the themes explored in Ruthless! The Musical, which opened June 21 at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage.
This is likely the campiest show you’ll see all summer, and it might also be the most fun.
Called “the stage mother of all musicals,” Ruthless! tells the story of a bursting-with-talent third grader who will do anything to get the lead in the school play — including murdering another third grader. The book and score by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird is smart and overweening and provides a number of fun references to Gypsy and Mame, with a little All About Eve and The Bad Seed thrown in for good measure. Each of the main characters (all of whom are female) has an agenda and is ruthless in her own way, and who will win out in the end is anyone’s guess. Fasten your seatbelts, you’re in for quite a romp.
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The cast couldn’t be any better. As the flamboyant Sylvia St. Croix, a talent agent with a mysterious past, Robbie Wayne is fabulous. Looking and sounding like the love child of Bea Arthur and Divine, Wayne is unrecognizable in his delicious drag getup and possesses a set of pipes to rival any Broadway belter.
Christine Tringali Nunes plays 1950s-ish housewife Judy Denmark, the mother of wunderkind Tina Denmark. With her perfect Donna Reed coif and spotless home, she’s more than a little Stepford-y, and the results are hilarious. Nunes’ performance is so delightfully quirky, it’s difficult to look away. Practically every move she makes is priceless — especially her facial ticks.
Dana Adkins is wonderfully over-the-top as failed-actress-turned-bitter-third-grade-teacher Miss Thorn. Her loud, often shrill voice evokes every nightmarish authority figure while providing plenty of laugh-out-loud moments.
Robbie Wayne plays the flamboyant Sylvia St. Croix.
And then there is Elizabeth Schmelling, a powerhouse of a performer who is scarily convincing as the talented but demonic 8-year-old who makes a killing on and off the stage. It’s a scrumptious role — who doesn’t love a child who tap dances as well as she curses and has spontaneous bouts of psychotic laughter? — and Schmelling is terrific.
Playing two small parts (the murdered third grader and a Broadway star’s lackey, who is — of course — named Eve), Leanna Rodgers commands the stage. Her take on both characters is spot-on and her performance garners plenty of deserved laughs. Ditto for Jaci Davis as Lita Encore, a ruthless flask-hiding critic who hates everything about the theater. Davis has arguably the best number in the show, “I Hate Musicals,” which she delivers with gusto.
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Helming the production is Loren Freeman, making his Desert Rose directorial debut. As we learn in the program, Freeman is very fond of Ruthless!, having played Sylvia in the original Los Angeles production in 1993. (Not mentioned in the program but still a fun fact about the show: In the 1992 Off-Broadway production, pre-fame Natalie Portman and Britney Spears understudied the role of Tina.) Freeman is an adept director; he has assembled an incredible cast and guided them to perfection in their roles while keeping the action moving at just the right pace.
While every aspect of this production is flawless, additional praise should be heaped upon Bruce Weber for his inventive set and costume design. His attention to detail is very impressive. The midcentury modern sets will have you rethinking your own living room, while every single piece of wardrobe is a masterpiece, from the mother-and-daughter dresses worn by Judy and Tina to Sylvia’s exquisite headgear.
Elizabeth Schmelling portrays 8-year-old Tina to Christine Tringali Nunes, who plays her mother, Judy Denmark.
If you appreciate devilish humor and extravagant campiness, you’re sure to love Ruthless! Highly recommended.
Ruthless! The Musical runs through July 14 at the Desert Rose Playhouse in Rancho Mirage. For tickets, visit desertroseplayhouse.org or call the box office at 760-202-3000.