Steel Beam's 'Ruthless!' a hilariously campy look at showbiz ambition
Did that little girl just drop an F-bomb? Is that matronly woman really a man in drag? And are we supposed to laugh at the deadly final tableau that apes "Hamlet"?
"Ruthless! The Musical" might not be for you if any of those questions offend your sensibilities. But if you have a wickedly dark sense of humor and an appreciation for over-the-top camp comedy, then rush to St. Charles to see Steel Beam Theatre's joyously wry "Ruthless!"
"Ruthless!" is both an homage to and an amalgamated spoof of "serious" works like "The Bad Seed," "Gypsy" and "All About Eve." But what's ingenious about composer Marvin Laird and librettist Joel Paley's irreverent musical is that you don't need to be familiar with any of its targets to have a great time.
First staged off-Broadway in 1992 (notably with future stars Britney Spears as an understudy and Natalie Portman as a replacement), "Ruthless!" wins loads of laughs by mocking people's overpowering drive for showbiz celebrity. Far from being dated, "Ruthless!" should please anyone whose recent guilty pleasures have included the cable reality TV shows "Dance Moms" or "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."
"Ruthless!" swirls around demented third-grader Tina Denmark (Emerson Tait and Sophie Kaegi alternate in the role). Tina is an aggressively cutesy and talented little girl who would literally kill to become a star.
This frightens Tina's ditsy homemaker mother, Judy (a hilarious Erin Renee Baumrucker in mock suburban mode), who would rather her daughter stay in school. But Judy's arm is twisted by the glamorous talent scout Sylvia St. Croix (a fantastically arch John B. Boss with priceless expressions), who offers nothing but encouragement for Tina to win the star part in the school play.
Complications ensue when Tina's not-as-talented classmate, Louise Lerman (a wonderful Courtney Jo Newby as an adult playing a child), is cast in the star part by the lamenting teacher Myrna Thorn (a great Denise Tamburrino). More outrageous plot twists get revealed by Lita Encore (Christine Pfenninger as a brassy Ethel Merman-type), a theater critic who notoriously hates everything. Roles get unexpectedly reversed and a handgun makes a worrying appearance near the end.
Director Kevin Wiczer and his cast clearly had a ball rehearsing "Ruthless!" and their expert comic timing makes the show a continual gas. There may be some rough edges with tardy lighting cues and difficulty hearing the young star, but Steel Beam's "Ruthless!" is both a comedy winner and a killer good time.
"Ruthless! The Musical"★ ★ ★
Location: Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles, (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday; through April 30
Running time: Two hours with intermission
Parking: Adjacent parking garage and nearby street parking
Rating: For teens or older: profanity, a drug reference and violence