The Bad Seed meets All About Eve meets Gypsy as the musical theater majors of Cal State Fullerton’s illustrious BFA program bring the murderously funny off-Broadway cult spoof Ruthless! The Musical to lethally hilarious life on the intimate stage of Santa Ana’s Grand Central Theatre.
Taylor Hartsfield stars fabulously as suburban housewife Judy Denmark, aka Mrs. Tina’s Mother, just your typical Donna Reed-meets-June Cleaver homemaker with an absentee husband and an eight-year-old daughter willing to do anything to become a Broadway star, beginning (though not ending) with murder.
The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark and All About Eve’s Eve Harrington could take a tip or two from psychopathic Shirley Temple-wannabe Tina Denmark (Lacey Beegun), who discovers that the easiest way for an understudy to rid herself of a second-rate leading lady with parental connections, Little Orphan Annie lookalike Louise Lerman (Elizabeth Campbell), is to hang her with a jump rope from the catwalk of their elementary school theater and make it look like an accident.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Tina’s Mother discovers to her shock and delight that she shares an unexpected connection with the late, great Broadway star Ruth Del Marco, prompting the heretofore talentless Judy to transform herself into two-time Tony-winner Ginger “I’m talented! God help me, I’m talented!” Del Marco.
Also figuring prominently in both Tina’s descent into Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues hell and Ginger’s rise to Broadway superstardom is glamorous, take-no-prisoners talent agent Sylvia St. Croix (Mitchell Turner), a mountainous man of a woman with no greater aim in life than making Tina a star, no matter what she has to do to achieve her goal.
Completing the cast of characters are former thespian-turned-reluctant-3rd-grade teacher Miss Thorn (Elyssa Alexander); Ginger’s Single White Female personal assistant Eve (Campbell), doing for/to Ginger what Eve Harrington did for/to Margo Channing; dirt-digging Modern Lesbian—sorry make that, Modern Thespian—reporter Miss Block (Alexander); and venomous drama critic Lita Encore (Kellianne Safarik), whose theme song “I Hate Musicals” proves so true, she subjects even granddaughter Tina to her poison pen.
With its supremely campy book by Joel Paley and one catchy song after another (music by Marvin Laird, lyrics by Paley), Ruthless! The Musical became not only an off-Broadway hit but a long-running L.A. smash back in the early ‘90s, but hasn’t had a fully-staged Los Angeles production since a 2005 revival at the Hudson, all the more reason for those in search of a Ruthless! fix to head on down to Orange County for one of the CSUF revival’s three remaining performances.
While there’s something to be said for student productions like Fullerton’s just-closed Spring Awakening and USC’s recent Grease, musicals whose young casts of characters make college stagings virtually indistinguishable from professional ones, musicals like Ruthless!, whose roles range from 8-years-old to 50somethings, offer student actors the chance to sink their teeth into parts for which they would otherwise be age-inappropriate.
Yes, an extra suspension of disbelief is required to buy actors barely in their twenties as characters either half or twice their ages, but once disbelief has been suspended, what a joy it can be to see young performers dazzle in older (or sometimes much younger) roles.
Speaking of dazzlers, CSUF junior Hartsfield gives as brilliantly over-the-top yet nuanced a performance as any much older professional might deliver as both Stepford Wife Judy and Diva Extraordinaire Ginger.
Opposite Hartsfield, Turner’s performance as Sylvia is as unrestrainedly RuPaul’s Drag-Race fabulous as anyone could wish for from a man in a dress, and Beegun’s taptastic take on every monster child star ever born is as marvelously scenery-chewing as any Ruthless! fan could desire.
Safarik’s Merman-meets-Lupone take on Lita is another winner from the soon-to-graduate Cal State Fullerton senior. As for 3rd-year musical theater BFA majors Alexander and Campbell, the twosome steal scenes in not one but two very different roles, the former as both uptight schoolmarm and mannish reporter, the latter as both talentless child performer and watch-your-back personal assistant.
Director Craig Tyrl has not only kept his entire student cast on the same, just-campy-enough, just-exaggerated-enough page, he makes highly inventive use of Grand Central’s blackbox space, dressed with just enough set design to suggest Ruthless!’s various locales.
Tyrl also finds clever ways to integrate “Ninjas” Casey Bowen and Samantha Preshaw and musical director Rod Bagheri into the action, and whiz-kid Bagheri’s piano accompaniment is as flawless as it gets.
Choreographer William F. Lett gets pretty much the entire cast a tap-tap-tapping, with special tap snaps to Lacey’s Tina.
Major kudos go to costume designers Taylor Donham and Christina Perez for the production’s imaginatively concocted wardrobe and wig designer Chauna Goldberg for one just-right do after another.
Sean Casey Flanagan (fight choreographer), Mitchel Simoncini (lighting design), Ingrid Garner (properties design), and Iris Zacarias (audio design) all make expert contributions as well.
Amber Guttilla is stage manager. John Favreau is technical director. The crew is made up of Bowen, Jenna Butz, Emma Petersen, Preshaw, Nicole Ross, and Matthew Yepez.
Though Ruthless! The Musical’s gifted performers may be only a few years out of high school, now is the time to catch them up close, personal, and cheap (at a mere $10 a ticket) because mark my words. They are well on their way to professional—and far pricier—success.
In the meantime, one thing is for sure. Ruthless! The Musical will have you laughing as loudly and as often as you’re likely to laugh all year, then exiting the theater with “The key to success is … ruthlessness!” ringing in your ears. (Just let Tina Denmark do the killing for you.)
CSUF Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.
May 6, 2015