Only one musical in history can claim to have launched starlets Britney Spears, Laura Bell Bundy and Natalie Portman into minor recognition before they enjoyed above-title success, and that would be Ruthless!, the 1992 high-camp, distilled mash-up of every worn out movie in a show queen’s arsenal set to song, currently enjoying a revival at Off Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theatre.
And we do mean every movie: Ruthless! piles them on furiously—The Bad Seed, Gypsy, Auntie Mame, All About Eve, plus (one guesses) the films of Douglas Sirk and John Waters, all informing the twisted tale of the Denmarks, a mother-daughter duo comprised of Judy (Kim Maresca) and saucer-eyed, stardom-starved blonde tyke Tina (Tori Murray). Judy is a self-professed housewife dullard with odd, secretive psychological triggers who allows a shifty agent named Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land, keeping up the tradition of a man assuming this salty diva role) to steer the budding career of her eight-year old terror to victory… even if it means a few dead bodies along the way.
This aptly chintzy production, with some uproarious costume changes—and directed by original creator Joel Paley (who composed the score with Marvin Laird)—suffers a tendency to have actors rush their lines and, at press time, still felt a bit under-rehearsed, which is a shame because there’s great stuff in this vaudevillian-inspired script (“Come on Sylvia, I’ve got sushi in the oven.”). But over time, the proper balance might fall into place, and though it didn’t seem apparent to me that we might see a duplicate of superstar moxie the original NYC had, the actors are reveling in this material, especially Maresca, having a ball in an auspicious Off Broadway debut. (Also, producers take note: she’s a ringer for Amy Winehouse if anyone ever attempts a biopic, and the singing chops are there too.) Otherwise, there’s no danger of Charles Busch losing his crown as the reigning king (queen?) of arched-brow throwback scenarios, but to borrow a lyric from its title track, Ruthless! stops just short of toothless. B–