While Pride weekend was going strong in Hillcrest and Balboa Park, out in Rolando Moxie Theatre was opening the gayest show in town.
And I do mean “gayest” in terms of both “happy, full of laughter,” and “a lot of queer sensibility.”
Ruthless, an off-Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Joel Paley, and music by Melvin Laird, is at its best when it is tipping its hand in the most outrageous ways. Act 1 pays relentless tribute to “The Bad Seed,” and all those awful 1950s movies where you know the children are evil because their eyes start glowing red. Act 2 spoofs “All About Eve,” the tale of the star’s protégé (or, in this case, personal assistant) who connives to succeed at the star’s expense.
Divas galore, some of them bitch goddesses, one of them a drag queen. Lots of overwrought emotions. How could a gay boy (or anyone else, for that matter) not be in love?
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Tina Denmark (Madison O’Donovan at the performance I saw, but also Ainsley Savant) is a young girl who really, really wants the lead role in a musical version of “Pippi Longstocking” that’s set in Tahiti. Miss Thorn (Jeannine Marqui), the teacher who both wrote and is directing the show, gives the lead role to Louise Lerman (Hayley Silvers but also Madeline Hernandez), the daughter of significant financial supporters of her program. Tina and her mother, Judy (Eileen Bowman), manage to talk Miss Thorn into allowing Tina to understudy the role – and then Louise turns up dead just in time for Tina to go on in her place.
That’s right, she wanted the part so badly she could kill for it.
Tina is being egged on by a mysterious woman known as Sylvia St. Croix (David McBean), who wears stylish dresses and who “styles” herself as a person who can make performers into stars. Tina’s mother, Judy, is hesitant about pushing Tina particularly hard, and Judy claims to have no talent of her own.
Of course, Judy eventually discovers that she herself is the daughter of a famous performer, changes her tune, and manages to make it big on Broadway, much to the chagrin of both Sylvia and Tina. Nipping at Judy’s heels is Eve Allabout (no, I didn’t make that up – she’s played by Cashae Monya).
Act 1 is delicious, because the humor is at its archest, and arch humor is right up Mr. McBean’s alley. Ms. Bowman is a bit too convincing as “no-talent” Judy, though, and when the story shifts in Act 2 to the talented Judy (and Ms. Bowman is, indeed, very talented), it really doesn’t have anywhere to go.
Not that the cast particularly cares about that – they’re all having way too much fun playing it over the top.
And, for the most part, the audience eats it up, even when the plot developments are signaled way before they actually happen or the acting turns into “indicating.”
Co-directors Leigh Scarritt and Delicia Turner Sonnenberg combine a skill working with young performers (Ms. Scarritt) and a skill working with adult performers (Ms. Sonnenberg). The young actors who aren’t Tina or Louise (and yes, Louise is told to “sing out”) play ensemble roles and change scenery, while the adult actors who aren’t leads get memorable cameo appearances (Ms. Monya scores with her conniving shtick, as does Shirley Johnston in the Act 2 role of Miss Block, “famous thespian” – sorry, I’m not making this up, either). There’s even a walk-on role at the very end, for which Moxie promises a different performer each time.
It’s inspired silliness, with lots of cute theatre references thrown in. You’re gonna love it.