Good things come in small packages. I’m not sure who said it originally, but it certainly pertains, not least to the Reginald season kickoff, with The Theatre Division’s production of Ruthless! The Musical: book & lyrics by Joel Paley; music by Marvin Laird. Lisa Freshwater directs this winning, giant-slaying mini-me musical, playing to a maximum of 153 people a night. By contrast, Sydney’s Lyric Theatre (The Star) has a capacity of 2,050, and this is work deserving of that exposure.
Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with a chamber musical, especially from the audience’s point-of-view. All the moreso when it features Katrina Retallick, Meredith O’Reilly, Margi De Ferranti and Geraldine Turner. Can musical theatre get any better?
First and foremost, the material is excellent. Not perfect, but excellent. And quite unusual: Ruthless! is an all-girl musical and, as everyone on stage has their big number, a triumphant, glass ceiling smashing time is had by all. As the name implies, it’s a merciless spoof on all manner of iconic episodes in popular culture going back a lot further than the 1992 date-stamp on the work would indicate. It would be a sport for a spoiler to name all the references and take all the fun of discovery out: suffice to say, if you know your ’50s movies and musicals, you’re going to have a good time too.
Mason Browne’s set and costume design, immediately apparent for its cleverness and fidelity to post-war American fashion, style and taste, is the first palpable signal sardonic wit will be served. Sound design, by Thomas Brickhill, ensures almost everything is crystal clear and in balance.
Brad Miller is at the helm as musical director, leading Lindsay Partridge on a second piano, Elsen Price on bass and Andrew Massey on very fulsome percussion, including timpani. The band is great and even this calibre of performers wouldn’t look or sound nearly as good without this backing.
Retallick’s attractive face is emblazoned with a smile as broad as The Joker’s, as Judy Denmark, housewife superstar. She’s straight from the pages of a magazine bible of idealised domesticity and life revolves around her precocious daughter, Tina (Madison Russo, on the night). Tina may only be eight, but she’s already transcended any aspirations she may have to normal childhood. She believes “it’s time to move on”. And she does, taking aim at Louise Lerman (Caitlin Berry, whose better, bigger role is as Eve, PA to Ginger Del Marco, but that’s another part of the story altogether), whose wealthy parents effectively buy her the lead in the school production. Her aim is true and she ends up in an institution for wayward ingenues; the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues, to be precise, a reference bound to test the depth of your immersion in showbiz.
Guiding Tina up to incarceration has been agent, Sylvia St Croix (a marvellous Meredith O’Reilly, who seems to channel Eve Arden’s dry disposition), vicariously exercising her own ambition. Doing similarly, as director of Pippi In Tahiti! The Musical, is Miss Block (Margi de Ferranti), dressed in the drab, checked, knee-length skirt and modest blouse you’d expect of a ’50s third-grade teacher who might’ve fallen into the “funny, she never married” category. De Ferranti is also in top comic form as Myrna Thorn, a reporter for Modern Thespian. But as great as all the above are, none can top Geraldine Turner, as musical-mauling theatre critic Lita Encore, who takes notions of musical theatre performance to another level.
Again, of course, they’ve all got outstanding material as the foundation for their performances. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t borrow from tried-and-tested Mel Brooks tropes and the like, or that there aren’t moments that fall slightly flat or which are downright silly. But, on the whole, Ruthless! is ruthlessly funny and only the worst kind of curmudgeon, or Lita Encore, could fail to enjoy it. The plot thickens to the point of porridge, spiced with faux surprises of the most melodramatic kind. And you’ll be regaled, to the brink of upchuck, by mother-daughter exchanges like: “What would you give me for a basketful of kisses?” ”A bushel of hugs!” The frightening thing is that such supercharged declarations of affection ring with such familiarity, thanks to the golden years of both Hollywood and television.
This production shows Australian musical theatre, not least in Sydney, to still have a strong heartbeat, notwithstanding announcements of tedious revival after revival of movies made into musicals, with too little thought about how well they might actually translate. An Officer and a Gentleman. Dirty Dancing. Give me a break. Give me Ruthless! This is what we’ be flocking to if we had any sense, taste, or the kind of budgets and venues that would ensure we all knew about it.
Featured image by Blueprint Studios