(There are spoilers in this review.)
Who enjoys a spoonful of sugar and a healthy dose of bitchiness any day of the week? Okay, don’t raise your hands up, all at once. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there with cut-throat egotists and competitive divas willing to dispose of the bodies of their enemies (and frenemies) to get the number one spot.
This is the mission of the campest musical I’ve ever seen, Ruthless! The Musical; now showing at the Arts Centre, under the direction of Richard Fitch and music director, Simon Beck. The 1992 musical (written by Joey Paley and composed by Marvin Laird) is full-on catty and bratty behaviour dressed up in big, floral and polka dot dresses with big numbers like “I Hate Musicals” that comically mock musical theatre, including Miss Saigon, Gypsy and Les Miserables. It’s a bit of harmless, tongue-in-cheek, fun though, (so don’t take it seriously, ladies).
The musical opened on Broadway 26 years ago; Britney Spears and Natalie Portman were the understudies of Laura Bell Bundy (the original scheming schoolgirl, Tina Denmark, eager to play the lead role in the school play). Ruthless! The Musical won the 1993 New York Outer Critic Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and in the UK premiere, in 2002, it won five Musical Stages Awards for Omar F. Okai’s production at the Stratford Circus Theatre. These deserving awards speak volumes about the musical’s ability to entertain and tease its chirpy and gay audience.
Jason Gardiner (ITV’s Dancing on Ice) enters the stage in drag with charisma, female movements and the dramatic audacity his character, Sylvia St. Croix, affords him. Sylvia is Tina’s acting agent and her mother’s mother (gasp!), as we later discover. American performer, Kim Maresca, makes her UK debut and immaculately frames Judy Denmark. She has an extraordinary voice and gives a smashing performance as the ditzy stage-starved mother who is given a second chance to stand in the limelight.
Anya Evans’s portrayal of the 8-year-old maniac, Tina Denmark, was assuringly fearless and childishly sinister. Evans has a prosperous acting career to look forward to; she manages to retain the energy and vicious determination of the serially psychotic and excessively brattish Tina. (There are three young female actors also performing the role of Tina Denmark, including Fifi Bloomberg-Khier, Lucy Simmonds and Charlotte Breen.) Tracie Bennett performs as the theatre critic, Lita Encore. She’s a musical gem with heroic stage power; she sang “I Hate Musicals” with panache and gusto – the audience absolutely loved her. (Bennett has been nominated Best Supporting Actress at the Olivier Awards 2018 for her performance in Follies at the National Theatre.)
Harriet Thorpe is venomous and witty as Miss Thorn, while Lara Denning as Eve and Louise Lerman gives a sharp edge to our mean-girls narrative. Everyone in the cast warrants praise for their joint effort to sing and dance with conviction – no one is the missing link.
The lyrics are gutsy, hilarious and can be jaw-dropping – it is full of innuendos. And the music is delightfully glee, throughout, thanks to the small ensemble performing beneath the stage, including woodwind, bass, piano and percussion musicians. There’s also Morgan Large’s nicely done set designs from Judy Denmark’s bright living room to her extravagant Upper West Side apartment; life-size window included.
Ruthless! The Musical isn’t exactly Wicked, but perhaps that’s the charming and fun part of this outrageously zany show. I wouldn’t call it family-friendly either; a few too many rude words fly around. Yet if you would like an exaggerated reality check of the cruel, cruel world of Broadway (heck, why not add the West End into the mix), then this might be the right gin and tonic and artificial sweetener, you’ve been looking for.
(Header image: Jason Gardiner as Sylvia St. Croix and Tracey Bennett as Lita, the theatre critic (Credit: Alastair Muir).
Ruthless! The Musical is showing at the Arts Centre now until June 23rd.
Find out more about the musical and buy your ticket online here.
I was invited to see Ruthless! The Musical on Friday 23rd March and was given a press ticket by the PR company.