Arts Theatre, London – until 23 June 2018
Ruthless! is a satirical take on the vicious and bloodthirsty showbusiness world of musical theatre. Premiering Off-Broadway back in 1992, its earliest production was to kick-start the careers (as understudies) of both Natalie Portman and Britney Spears.
The story tells of eight-year-old Tina Denmark, aspiring to stardom and dreaming of Broadway, who will stop at nothing to achieve her goal, even if that means taking out the competition completely in a tale that becomes a camped-up, hammed-up combination of plot twists and melodrama. The book is undoubtedly clunky and occasional one-liners miss the mark, but in a piece where reality is so warped, nothing ever really seems quite normal. Richard Fitch’s direction, however, serves to highlight Joel Paley’s exaggerated text and allows the actors room to play with their oversized characters.
Kim Maresca is Judy, Tina’s mother, offering up the perfect depiction of a 1950s housewife. Maresca’s comic timing is impeccable and her soprano that occasionally creeps in, despite proclaiming repeatedly that she’s talentless, is stunning. Regardless of her having played the role before Off-Broadway, this portrayal feels fresh and makes Maresca the star of the show.
With only a handful of appearances, Tracie Bennett retains her scene-stealing knack. Her interpretation of Lita, the show-tune hating theatre critic is a gem, while her number ‘I Hate Musicals’, incorporating endless references to shows of days gone by is a scream. Jason Gardiner delivers a pleasant surprise as Tina’s success hungry agent, Sylvia St Croix. In drag and rocking a fair few pairs of heels, Gardiner unveils a rich sounding baritone and a sassy Liza Minnelli-esque persona on stage that blends perfectly with the story’s insanity.
Of the four child performers cast as Tina, Anya Evans was in the role on the night of this review. Experienced already, Evans is a young actress with a control to her voice that is well beyond her years. She’s also a gifted dancer and, much like her on stage mother, has excellent comic timing alongside an ability to gauge audience reaction.
Musical direction from Simon Beck adds colour to the piece with a “big Broadway” feel to Marvin Laird’s numbers making the score exciting. The show has been impressively cast, with a company whose voices and performances are well suited to the style.
Ruthless! will be best savoured with a large gin alongside a generous pinch of salt. Excellently performed, it makes for a fun night at the theatre.