Everyone knows that old saying, "Behind every child performer there's a flaming drag queen gesturing wildly for more spirited 'spirit fingers' and shrieking 'sing out! SING OUT!!'" OK...so you've never heard that one before. We made it up. But if it were an old saying, Uptown Players' production of Ruthless! The Musical would bring it to mind as it transports the audience to the days of heavily penciled eyebrows and sculpted hairdos that lasted weeks. Hilarity and singing ensue, but Ruthless! quickly becomes more Hitchcock than Hayworth as it goes from charming to creepy.
The curtain opens on Judy Denmark, the suburban housewife Miss Yvonne would have been if she'd left PeeWee's Playhouse. Delightfully played by Broadway veteran Stacia Goad in petticoats up to her chin and a huge bow on her head, Judy flounces around a living room presided over by a colossal portrait of her daughter Tina.
What was doubtless meant to be the comedic center of the show breezes in next, in the form of Coy Covington playing Sylvia St. Croix, a fur- and diamond-bedecked talent agent who wants to manage Tina's budding acting career. So begins the abounding and eventually tiresome references to the old chick flicks of the golden age of Hollywood, such as Gypsy and The Women. St. Croix is the part of a lifetime for any man who's yearned to don Joan Crawford's turban and gowns, but a somewhat ungraceful Covington falls short of show-stealing camp.
St. Croix appears in time for Tina's audition for the lead in the third-grade play "Pippi in Tahiti," which is put on by pill-popping drama teacher Myrna Thorn. Jenny Thurman successfully channels Madeline Khan in this supporting role, and with her rich voice and evil growl makes it one of the most memorable of the show.
When Tina is merely cast as the understudy to the lead in the play, she does what any self-respecting psychotic understudy would: She hangs the girl, who was "too Jewish-looking to play Pippi," with a jump rope. She's caught, of course, and is sent to a reform school for the "criminally talented." Meanwhile, St. Croix hilariously changes into a different gown every single time she leaves the stage, spanning what must be the entire wardrobe of the wealthy grandmother of someone on the cast or crew. Indeed, the costumes are one of the strong points of this show, with Judy and Tina decked out in freakishly girly pinafores and St. Croix always dressed to the nines.
As it turns out, Sylvia St. Croix is really an alias for Ruth DelMarco, a great Broadway star who allegedly killed herself after being "killed" by a blood-thirsty critic. She has invaded the Denmark home not to rocket Tina to stardom but to be reunited with Judy, the daughter she named Ginger DelMarco and gave up for adoption shortly before she disappeared from show business. Confusing? It's not, really; in fact, it's fairly obvious halfway through the first act what's going on, one of several downfalls of the script. Full of hackneyed jokes and a few too many Mommie Dearest references, Joel Paley's script isn't quite what it tries to be, a clever parody of old movies and Broadway shows. Eye-rolling is not an unwarranted response to many of the lines, but both Goad, the thoroughly charming and real star of the show, and Thurman manage to dress it up and make it funny most of the time.
Another problem is that the show is entirely too long. The two and a half hours easily could be shortened if a few of the 18 songs were cut, and with most of the songs being of high-school play quality, you wouldn't even miss 'em.
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