Off-Broadway Theater Review: RUTHLESS! (St. Luke’s)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on July 13, 2015

in Theater-New York


Though useful as a showcase for the capable performers and boasting some excellent singing, Joel Paley’s revival of his gray farce Ruthless!, a self-referential spoof of Broadway musicals, offers few laughs, little suspense and no surprises; at least one audience member found himself stifling yawns as he fought the urge to nod off.

KIM MARESCA, PETER LAND and RITA McKENZIE in RUTHLESS! at St. Luke’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.Played with flair by Peter Land, entertainment publicist Sylvia St. Croix shows up on the doorstep of housewife Judy Denmark (a sharp and committed Kim Maresca) to offer her services to Judy’s eight-year-old daughter Tina (a terrific Tori Murray). Talented, sassy, precocious  and ruthless, Tina is a performer with vast ambitions. But when a coveted part in a school play goes to her halfwit schoolmate Louise Lerman (an entertaining Tracy Jai Edwards), the cute little sociopath reveals just how far she’ll go to be a star.

In its first half the show comes alive whenever Ms. Murray takes the stage—and only then—her part being the only one with anything going on dramatically. The other actors are stuck with characters who do little but mouth Mr. Paley’s thoughts and observations on talent and musicals and the theater. The mouthing is in song, so there is that to enjoy—Ms. Maresca, Mr. Land and Ms. Murray are especially memorable. But despite Mr. Paley’s occasionally clever lyrics and Marvin Laird’s effective score, the show’s characters, which include desperate and kooky school-play director Miss Thorn (Andrea McCullough), are stuck in dramatic limbo from which only the curtain can save them.

PETER LAND, TORI MURRAY and KIM MARESCA in RUTHLESS! at St. Luke’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A spoof, or any parody, doesn’t need to be as good as what it is making fun of to be entertaining. But it does need to be hip. We need to trust that the creator of the parody knows something more about what he is parodying than we do, and has something to show us about it that we hadn’t thought of. With Ruthless!, Mr. Paley is exaggerating the already exaggerated elements of musical farce to make fun of musical farce, and of musical theater in general. He’s trying to be corny on purpose. But his attempt at being corny is itself corny. He’s endeavoring to make fun of bad musicals with a musical that is worse than a lot of the ones he’s trying to make fun of.

TORI MURRAY as Tina Denmark and KIM MARESCA as her mother Judy Denmark in RUTHLESS! at St. Luke’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

This problem is illustrated all too well with the number “I Hate Musicals,” performed by Tina’s theater critic grandmother Lita Encore (Rita McKenzie). Besides listing why she hates the genre—shows are vacuous, the music is synthesized, performers are amplified (all of which is true about Ruthless!)—Lita sings: “The story is moving, chock full of suspense / the plot takes a twist and the mood is intense / then someone sings a song like this, it doesn’t make sense / Pa-lease! I hate musicals…” This self-parodying song might have worked, might have made its point, had it interrupted a moving story that was chock full of suspense, scuttled a plot twist or killed an intense mood. But it didn’t. And so when Ms. McKenzie sings: “I hate musicals / but not as much as I hate this song!” she has my sympathy on both counts.

PETER LAND & TORI MURRAY and KIM MARESCA in RUTHLESS! at St. Luke’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Lynn Redgrave Theater
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th St
Mon at 8; Thurs at 7; Sat at 2
ends on September 12, 2015
EXTENDED to June 18, 2016
for tickets, call 212.239.6200 or visit Ruthless The Musical

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