Ruthless! The Musical (review)

Ruthless-The-Musical-Britni-Leslie-and-Dolly-DiamondIt can feel like an affront on one’s well-meaning moral compass laughing out loud at not just one callous act of murder but again and again, one after the other. That’s exactly what occurs in the sinisterly dark but sugary realm of Ruthless! The Musical.

Along the way, this wicked little off-Broadway musical – now more than 30 years old with a score by Marvin Laird and book and lyrics by Joel Paley – is a seemingly bottomless pit of crazy, camp and corny theatrics with all sorts of twists and turns that journey through enthralling and unashamed preposterousness.

At the three quarter mark of its run at St Kilda’s Alex Theatre, Stagebugs Productions’ Ruthless! The Musical is perfectly comfortable in its skin, outfitted with pacy direction by Chelsea Matheson and spiced up with a vivacious cast.

The plot begins its whirl around evil and incorrigible eight year old Tina Denmark’s (Chloe Halley) desperation to star in her school musical, missing out on the lead and knocking off her inept rival Louise Lerman (Olivia Charalambous).

Singling out Tina for star development, colourful and officious talent agent Silvia St. Croix (Dolly Diamond) has her own agenda. Tina’s dim-witted, treacly housewife mother Judy (Britni Leslie), learns she is really the daughter of a Broadway star presumed dead and comes into her own as a star during Tina’s years in a “reform school for the criminally talented.”

When Tina is released on good behaviour and searches out her mother – now residing in a glamorous New York penthouse – a new string of revelations unfurl and things rapidly deteriorate as the farce stacks up.

As preposterous as it seems, Ruthless! The Musical wants to say a lot about what it supposedly takes to make it to the top as it hilariously parodies the genre it relies on for an audience. That sentiment is revealed glaringly as aged and unsteady theatre critic Litta Encore (Emma Clair Waxman) belts out I Hate Musicals – and who has destroyed many lives.

The likes of All About Eve, Mame, Gypsy and iconic thriller The Bad Seed are obvious fodder for this musical spoof incorporating a huge armoury of laugh-out-loud one-liners and the humorous responses from taking things literally.

Pouting and stomping her way into the world one minute, nice as pie the next, Halley is badass in the role of pigtailed and possessed Tina, her vocals combining both sweetened and raw elements that sculpt the part wonderfully.

Leslie breezes across and lights up the stage effortlessly as doting mother Judy Denmark before transforming into the sassy Ginger Delmarco – from a good-hearted egg turned self-centred – bringing to mind Megan Mullally’s squeaky-voiced Karen from Will and Grace and precision comic timing with her own radiant singing.

Glamorously gowned and coiffed while coughing and spitting her lines with the force and tone of a combustion engine, Dolly Diamond leaves a large and indelible impression as Silvia St. Croix.

In the same vein as Tina, Diamond naturally embodies St. Croix’s exaltations of being born to entertain and her characteristic vocal grit and polish adorn St. Croix’s music meaningfully. What transpires is that it truly runs in the blood!

Supporting roles are just as cracking. From an awkward, unfortunate young Louise, Charalambous becomes Louise’s vengeful mother Eve, having found her way into Judy/Ginger’s new Broadway life as her personal assistant, and hams up the part deliciously.

Stephanie Astrid John clutches at her role of school teacher Miss Thorn in classy voice and entertaining nervous energy while Waxman wobbles about delivering a punchy performance as the influential enemy critic and Judy’s adoptive mother.

For each part, Damien Jones’s two contrasted and intimate domestic settings spread their intent effectively, Leslie not only graces the stage but delivers generously with a range of standout vibrant costumes evoking the optimism of the 1950s and Jason Bovaird casts plenty of crisp and well-timed dramatic lighting on the whole affair.

Laird’s music is appealingly melodious, buoyant and realised with expert musicianship under conductor Ned Dixon (co-musical director with Dave Barclay) and his five colleagues unseen behind the set. But the music feels somewhat stuck in a limited sound palette, the songs’ catchiness quickly fades and it doesn’t help propelling Act 2 along despite the situational speed.

Nevertheless, Ruthless! The Musical is a thoroughly wacky and enjoyable romp, well-worth the ticket price and a high-spirited night out. And, with much relief, I’m pleased to say this critic shouldn’t be ruining anyone’s life or plans to see it.

Ruthless! The Musical
The Alex Theatre, 1 / 135 Fitzroy Street, St Kilda
Performance: Saturday 16 March 2024
Season continues to 24 March 2024
Information and Bookings:

Image: Britni Leslie and Dolly Diamond star in Ruthless! The Musical (supplied)

Review: Paul Selar