Be Prepared to Laugh at Pure, “Ruthless” Comedy

Those of you who enjoy farce, campy humor and parodies of classic Broadway shows and Hollywood films, should hurry on down to the Masquerade Theater. The rest of you please remain behind. Our subject is the musical comedy, “Ruthless.” With a clever book and lyrics by Joel Paley, some pleasant music by Marvin Laird, and generally sharp direction by Gary Lyons, you should be prepared for lots of laughs!

I don’t want to leave the impression this is a perfect evening of theater, but if you can overlook some barren stretches and occasional flaws, you may just have a jolly good time. The outrageous plot revolves around eight year old would-be child star, Tina Denmark, hilariously and viciously played by attractive adult, Katherine Randolph. Tina’s mother, Judy, (Deanna Julian) is so devoted to the budding child star that she has no real identity of her own. Julian, one of the better voices in this cast, puts that point across early on in the witty opening song, “Tina’s Mother.” With her perfect hair, string of pearls and crisp apron, she is the consummate June Cleaver as stage mom.

Now enter the mysterious Sylvia, played with high camp by Clint Biggerstaff, looking every inch a cross between Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” and Auntie Mame. His broad comedy is often right on target, but the singing voice needs work in musical numbers like “Talent.” Sylvia wants to manage the career of young Tina who will literally stop at nothing to get the lead in the Third Grade play, “Pippi Longstocking.” Tina shows off her Baby Jane-style talents as she sings and taps the cute “Born to Entertain.” The show’s many Stephanie Bradow costumes, especially those for the children and for Sylvia, (In Act II she looks like a cross between Carmen Miranda and Minnie Pearl) are uniformly hilarious and outlandish.

Allison Sumrall is a comedic scene-stealer as Miss Thorn, Tina’s teacher. Tina’s audition number, “To Play This Part,” is a riot that hints of her ruthlessness. Sumrall offers a great spoof in “Teaching Third Grade,” with amusing lyrics like “Life is a bitch, and it starts in third grade!” Miss Sumrall’s performance as a classroom tyrant is great fun. Tina’s tantrum, when she is reduced to playing a dog and doesn’t get the show’s lead, is not to be missed! Then the plot takes a black-comic twist when Sylvia engineers Tina as understudy to the show’s star, Louise Lerman (played for plenty of laugh by Melissa Moores.) Lerman’s “Pippi’s Song,” sung in outrageous red yarn pigtails, is a fun-filled romp with lines like “I never learned to read or write, and I can’t spell hermaphrodite.” But shortly thereafter Louise meets with foul play backstage. I dare not say more lest I spoil some of the many comic surprises that follow.

Rounding out the cast were Holly Vee as Lita Encore, and Emily Block as Libby Evans. Ms. Vee’s big number, “I Hate Musicals” was clever, but her Ethel Merman-style effort did not always succeed. Ms. Block provides a humorous characterization as Libby, a snooping reporter from “Modern Thespian,” who just might be a lesbian. Credit also goes to Amy R. Ross for attractive set designs and to Gary Lyons and Stephen Harrelson for keyboard accompaniment.

There were many more plot twists and some tighter editing would have helped. But there are plenty of witty take-offs on famous lines from shows and movies. There are numerous fine songs like “Angel Mom,” and a strong mother-daughter duet of “Parents and Children.” Julian’s best moment came in a “Gypsy” parody with “It Can Never Be That Way Again.” As for me, I wouldn’t mind seeing this show again in an off-Broadway theater with the finest vocalists available. I think it might go over very well.

The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in the Heights. (Moments from the Durham/N. Shepherd exit of loop 610) Beer, wine and snacks are available at performances. “Ruthless” runs Thurs.-Sat. at 8p.m. with 2p.m. matinees Sundays through September 1, 2001. The intimate theater seats only about 65 patrons, so call ahead for reservations. (713-861-7045) Tickets are $20 adults and $15 seniors / students. On Thursday nights, buy one and get one free.

(The Courier    8.18.01)

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at
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