by Paula Kaplan-Reiss
EDITOR’S NOTE: An unfortunate error was made in the editing of this review when it was first posted. That error has been corrected to the satisfaction of the editor and the critic. Berkshire on Stage apologizes for the distress that the original post caused.
When Sylvia St. Croix (Nate Beynon) opens Ruthless! The Musical, in full Mama Rose character, questioning where talent comes from, we learn we’re in for a comedic, outrageous production filled with spoofs and take-offs of famous musicals and movies. Next enters Judy Denmark (Jeannine Trimboli), as the mother of a supposedly uber talented young girl, Tina (Rosalyn Annely), who wants nothing more than to become a star, no matter who gets hurt. Judy, wary of her daughter’s plan, is persuaded by Sylvia to allow her to take charge of Tina, who desperately wants the lead in her school play. Yet, all does not go Tina’s way. This Baby June character does little to win our hearts as her evil side (as in The Bad Seed) bleeds through. A melodramatic comedy, the aptly titled Ruthless is filled with female characters who have not-so-hidden agendas to make their marks in the theatrical world and climb their way to the top. Who will be successful? Who will fall? And, who is really who they say they are?
Performing at The Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York, Ruthless premiered Off Broadway in 1992 playing for almost a year. The adult cast in Ghent is uniformly funny, talented and over-the-top. Kudos to directors, Michael C. Mensching and Michael McDermott for choosing such wonderful performers who keep us laughing and entertained, while referencing and mimicking performances by Ethel Merman, Vivian Leigh, and Bette Davis, to name a few.
Judy Denmark welcomes Sylvia into her cotton candy pink home, wearing a floral dress which matches the curtains, and performing like a Stepford/June Cleaver housewife with the comic timing of Kristin Wiig in SNL. Ironically, she is the only moral center of Act One as she attempts to keep her daughter from becoming a child star. Miss Thorn (Cathy Lee-Visscher), the reluctant third grade teacher of Tina, as well as the director of the school play, is a hysterical frustrated educator who cares little for children and mourns her failed dramatic career. She captures the character’s mixed feelings with excellent comic delivery. She is also responsible for thwarting Tina’s dreams. Yet, Tina may have the last laugh.
Lita Encore (Deb Mead), Judy’s mother and a harsh theater critic responsible for the suicide of an actress she panned, gives an outstanding performance singing, ‘I Hate Musicals.’ As kind and as warm a mother as Judy portrays, Lita plays cold, heartless and tough as nails.
Tina is the centerpiece of Act One. She needs to have the charm of Darla in The Little Rascals, the spunk of Annie, and the performing skills of Shirley Temple. At the same time, we need to see the scary, evil side to her, like the characters in a Stephen King novel. Rosalyn Annely makes every effort to meet these high standards. Her vicious smile rings true.
Act Two does not quite match the excitement or fun of Act One. With Judy’s character’s transformation, we see no redeeming players. The set, designed by Sam Reilly and Cathy Lee-Visscher, depicts a modern New York City apartment with photos of famous old Hollywood stars. Eve (Helen Annely), Judy’s assistant and another actress wannabe (as in All About Eve) appears as another funny, not-so-nice character.
The finale, not to be taken seriously, is sweeping, tragicomic and unexpected.
The songs in this musical (Joel Paley and Marvin Laird), while not familiar or altogether memorable, are filled with comic lyrics which leave the audience laughing. Trimboli’s voice is the strongest with the most range, which she ironically demonstrates singing that she has no talent. Competent piano accompaniment is provided behind stage, likely by Musical Director, Joanne Mensching.
Karen Mason and Joanne Maurer are outstanding Costume Designers with each actor wearing perfect ensembles to match their characters. Judy Denmark, Lita Encore, and Miss Thorn, in particular, sport beautiful outfits.
Lighting (Bob Healey) is bright, yet changes color when characters switch demeanors, and spotlights those in dramatic solos. Warnings of gunshots are posted at the theater. But, Sound Designer, Anne Marie Baker, used very muffled shots which were hardly worth the warning.
Ruthless, The Musical is a hoot and an enjoyable experience of musical theater, especially for those familiar with classic Broadway and old Hollywood cinema. We are treated to wonderful comic talent. We are reminded, show biz is no picnic and can be downright ruthless.
Ruthless! The Musical with book and Lyrics by Joel Paley, music by Marvin Laird, directed by Michael C. Mensching and Michael McDermott, and with musical direction by Joanne Mensching, runs April 13-30, 2023 at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place in Ghent, NY. CAST: Rosalyn Annely as Tina Denmark, Jeannine Trimboli as Judy (Tina’s mother), Nathaniel Beynon as Sylvia St. Croix (Tina’s theater coach), Cathy Lee-Visscher as Myrna Thorn (Tina’s third grade teacher), Annaleigh Butts as Louise (Tina’s classmate), Deborah Mead as Lita Encore (Tina’s grandmother and theater critic), and Helen Annely as Eve (an assistant to a Broadway star). Costume design by Karen Mason and Joanne Maurer, scenic design by Sam Reilly and Cathy Lee-Visscher, lighting design by Bob Healey, sound design by Anne Marie Baker, and stage manager Linda Thorburn.
Pay-What-You-Will Preview April 13 at 7:30 pm. Performances Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets: $23 Members, $28 Non-members and $12 Students. Order tickets HERE or call the theater 518 392-6264. https://www.ghentplayhouse.org/