Review by Janet I. Martineau
|Amanda Mueller, left, and Danielle Schoeny|
Toward the end of the first act of “Ruthless! The Musical,” playing this weekend at Saginaw Valley State University, an actress portraying a theater critic warbles the song “I Hate Musicals.”
So in the interest of fair play, I love musicals.....but have always had problems with campy shows. Hate them is perhaps too strong of a word, but not amused is often the case.
And “Ruthless!” is two-hours of campiness personified aimed at child stars, show business and massive egos. Or as the third grade theater teacher/director character puts it, “Life is a bitch and it starts in third grade.”
So several hours after attending opening night Thursday, which got a standing ovation, I am still pondering what to write about it except to give fair warning it is campy and if you are not totally into knowing about the backstage backstabbing prevalent in theater and/or theater history, you may not get many of the jokes. What the movie “Black Swan” says about the world of ballet via overstated violence, “Ruthless” says about theater via overstated puns and sight gags.
Written in 1992 and the winner of a New York Outer Critics Circle Award, SVSU’s production directed by Ric Roberts teeters sometimes just a tad too broadly into that world of camp. Just a hair less might have served things better, or at least we’d like to see how that might pan out. Also, the dancing on a table sight gag is like overdone, man.
But there are two performances which shine -- Danielle Schoeny as a dim-witted stage mother who, in Act II, finds her own theatrical chops and David Ryan as Sylvia St. Croix, an overly dramatic manager to a child star.
Both play their roles with a sense of restraint that is welcome, even though St. Croix is given to being a drama queen. Less is more here. And both are top-notch singers as well.
Schoeny is delightfully dumb as the apron-clad housewife/mom of the child star. When she mentions she has quit smoking and her guest inquires “cold turkey,” she says “I’ll check” and heads toward the kitchen with just the right touch of innocence required. And presto, in the second act her mom is all sexy and star-powered and sharp. Nice transformation smoothly played. Later in the show she also is both characters at once and we believe it.
And Ryan from his entrance owns St. Croix, and not just because he is a guy playing a gal. His St. Croix is the only performance that is at once both campy and humanly real -- especially in the closing sequence. His is a delivery we will long remember for its nuances amid the madcap.
Bravo also to Caitlyn Walsh as Lita Encore, the theater critic who is not above even trashing the acting debut of her third grader granddaughter (a bad seed kid played by Amanda Mueller). Walsh’s Lita is played with a nice edge.
As for the rest of the cast -- playing a school teacher/play director, personal assistant, classmate and even Mueller, whose career at SVSU has shone -- they were not quite in balance yet. They often seemed unable to project without effort on the vocals, were too broad at the expense of adding a little character to their caricatures, and need a little work on not rushing their lines or moments.
Mueller, we realize, was trying to capture the persona of a third grader who will stop at nothing to get cast as the lead in the school play. And she was childlike. And she showcased some fun and capable dance skills. And her duet with Schoeny on “Parents and Children” showcased the vocal strengths we are more accustomed to hearing from her. But there was just a little something missing overall in her performance.
Like we said, however, opening night got shouts at the end and a standing ovation. The musical numbers are great fun, and most of the puns and sight gags are worth a good knowing giggle. It’s just, that, well, this critic got a little restless in her seat ... until she nearly fell out it laughing at the to-die-for ending.