Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot follows young and talented child performer Tina Denmark, her simple and untalented mom Judy, and talent agent Sylvia St. Croix who believes Tina has what it takes to be a star. Unfortunately, when things don't exactly go Tina's way concerning who gets picked to be the star in her school play, it begins a downward spiral of murder, intrigue, and a whole lot of campy comedy moments.
Paley's script is a satirical take-off on The Bad Seed, which featured an adorable tyke who just happens to be a murderess. Paley turns the young girl into a demanding child star and adds in elements from backstage musicals like Gypsy, which focus on the dynamics between overbearing mothers who push and prod their kids to stardom, with a little bit of All About Eve and Mame thrown in as well. Paley's witty book and clever lyrics, along with Marvin Laird's tuneful score, result in a show that has plenty of big laughs and endearing characters.
This is a script with many funny moments, and director Jere Van Patten has not only found a talented cast who all do fairly well in delivering rich, humorous portrayals but he also adds in numerous sight gags that get some big laughs. The cast is led by Olivia Rose Feldman as Tina and Matthew R. Harris as Sylvia, both of whom deliver exceptional portrayals of these larger than life comical creatures. (Both parts are double cast, with Petra Danek playing Tina on Friday nights and a few dates when Raymond Barcelo plays Sylvia.)
When Tina first enters, she sings about how she was born to be a star and you don't doubt that for a second as Feldman is simply sensational as Tina. With a booming voice and firecracker comic timing she has the perfect blend of feigned interest and a sugary sweet delivery along with a big dose of sass and piercing, diabolical looks to portray this talented young girl who just happens to be a natural born killer. Harris is superb as Sylvia. With impeccable make-up, a stylish wig, and donning several glamorous gowns, Harris makes a stunning woman. He uses his fine-tuned comic delivery to ensure every one of Sylvia's witty lines pops. Harris portrays Sylvia as a driven, committed, yet utterly believable woman. Harris may be over the top in the part, but that's the way the role is written and you never for a second question the truthful, real, and larger than life character he has created, someone who has an uncanny ability to tackle any obstacle that gets in her way.
While the rest of the cast don't quite match the refined vocal and comic abilities that Feldman and Harris display, they all work well together to deliver a rewarding mix of zany characters. Danie Grief has the right delivery of Judy, the simple mom with a perky personality who just wants Tina to have a normal life. She also transforms into a completely different creature once some facts about her past are revealed. While Grief is charming as Judy, I only wish she were just a little kookier in act one so there would be a larger difference in the way we see the person Tina becomes in act two. Sydney Davis has fun as the vindictive, theatre-hating, theatre critic Lita Encore, while Kim Rodriguez interjects Miss Thorn with a huge dose of humor with her biting and mocking line readings. Kalei Ashlock does fine in a couple of smaller roles.
Ruthless! may be an extremely campy musical, but it is also an incredibly sweet and charming story about families. With superb turns from Matthew Harris and Olivia Rose Feldman, DST's production is fast paced, fun, and filled with an abundance of laugh out loud moments. I had a silly grin on my face from beginning to end.
Ruthless!, at Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale, through April 9th, 2017. For more information, call 480-483-1664 or visit desertstages.org.
Book and Lyrics by Joel Paley