theatre review

by Joal Paley with music by Marvin Laird
Ophidian Entertainment
Waterfront Theatre, Granville Island
October 29-November 20
604-257-0366 or

Campy musicals are lots of fun. We never seem to get tired of seeing melodrama, soap opera and 1950s culture sent up. The wretched excess of the genres and era presents an easy target and is tailor-made for drag, one of our fondest and most theatrical ways of commenting on the absurdities of gender stereotypes. And the artifice of musical theatre, where characters gratuitously break into song and dance, provides a perfect vehicle for the satire. When camp falls flat, as in the recent Stepford Wives movie, which probably should have been a musical, it can be very, very bad. When it works, as in the musical Hairspray, it’s a delight. Put Ruthless firmly in the latter category.

Ruthless centres around classic-1950s-housewife Judy and her precocious, sociopathic 8-year-old daughter Tina, a budding musical theatre star, encouraged in her blond ambition by exotic manager Sylvia St. Croix. When Tina is foiled by classmate Louise in her plan to get the lead in the school play, Pippi in Tahiti: The Musical, mayhem ensues. “Life is a bitch and it starts in third grade,” sings the frustrated director Ms. Thorn, and we see how well equipped Tina is to succeed in this Darwinian jungle the very first time we hear her growl, “I’ll do anything to play this part!” Through most of Act One we’re in The Bad Seed and Gypsy territory.

In Act Two, while Tina spends two years in a reform school for psychopathic ingenues, the nature vs. nurture argument at the centre of so much ‘50s popular culture continues in another vein. When Judy finds out from her adoptive mother that her birth mother was a famous actress, and that therefore she too must have “the pathological need to be famous,” she indeed becomes a Broadway diva. The parody shifts to Sunset Boulevard and All about Eve. Judy even gets an ambitious assistant named Eve. It all ends in a series of revelations of identity worthy of The Importance of Being Ernest, plus a wild gunfight, and of course a big production number.

The success of both script and production lies in their ability to sustain the metatheatrical parody while avoiding the overly familiar. As Judy says to Eve after the two have exchanged nasty thoughts about each other: “How dare you speak to me in that tone of voiceover!” Judy also has my other favorite line in the show: “My mother hates anything to do with show business—she’s a theatre critic!” As Judy, Heather Feeney is absolutely perfect, and young Carly Bondar’s Tina is a marvel of insouciance and talent. Stocky Greg Armstrong-Morris’s drag portrayal of the vicious theatre critic singing “I Hate Musicals” nearly steals the show, as does the multi-talented Rebecca Codling as both Louise and Eve. Denis Simpson’s outrageous drag Sylvia and Nomi Lyonns as both Ms. Thorn and a lesbian reporter round out an extremely talented and able cast. Unlike some other musicals this season, everyone here can sing and dance and act.

Everything about this production is first-rate, from Wendy Bross Stuart’s musical direction and four-piece band, to Sara-Jeanne Hosie’s minimal but effective choreography, Bryan Pollock’s stylized sets and especially Christina Sinosich’s bold costumes. Director David C. Jones provides a lot of smart comic texture and keeps everything moving along at a good clip. Ophidian Entertainment, a small Equity company, deserves a lot of credit and big audiences for this classy, funny show.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Tuesday, December 28, 2004 8:19 PM
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