Campy, Uproarious Melodrama in Ruthless! The Musical

WINTER PARK — At one point in Ruthless! The Musical, one of the characters, notoriously vicious theater critic Lita Encore, has a revelation: this isn’t a musical, she notes, it’s a melodrama!

She’s absolutely right — well, sort of.

Ruthless! The Musical, the new comedy at The Winter Park Playhouse, is indeed a musical with some alluringly catchy numbers, but this tribute to cutthroat, unspeakably ghastly show biz wannabes does indeed follow the outlines of a classic 1950s melodrama — or, at least, a campy parody of one.

Therein lies the great pleasure of watching Ruthless! The Musical, which is about bad people behaving badly in very bad ways, and having a marvelous time doing so. The stakes get so high that by the end, they’re stabbing one another in the back with hyperactive energy. It’s the kind of story that Andy Warhol or John Waters would have relished, familiar to anyone who has seen their own campy bad taste parodies such as Andy Warhol’s Bad or Polyester. A really ripe melodrama is the perfect setting for a campy tribute.

With plenty of laughs to deliver, you should definitely catch the show that opened on Friday and continues through Oct. 15.

What Is Ruthless ! The Musical?

The musical, part of the Winter Park Playhouse’s 21st season, was an Off-Broadway hit by playwright Joel Paley, who also wrote the lyrics to songs composed by Marvin Laird. In true melodramatic fashion, sweet, naive Judy is a housewife raising her daughter Tina while her hubby is away — often for long, long periods of time. Tina may look adorable, but inside that sweet child is a ruthless desire to become a major star. When former actress Sylvia St. Croix spots Tina wowing ’em at an senior home, Sylvia instantly recognizes talent and decides she’s going to guide li’l Tina to a career of greatness. Tina is thrilled. Judy worries it might ruin the child’s ability to learn and grow at school.

Wow, did mom nail that one!

Sylvia and Tina are thrilled beyond belief when Tina seems likely to get her first big break. Tina’s third grade teacher, flop aspiring actress-turned-educator Miss Thorn, is staging a production of Pippi Longstocking, and Tina looks like natural for the lead ….

Except Miss Thorn gives the part to fellow student Louise, who has far less talent than Tina, but whose parents are, uh … well, very rich …

One of the great pleasures of this show is watching the reaction by both Sylvia and Tina to losing this part, and how shrewdly they scheme to shove Louise aside so TIna can take the role. When their plan doesn’t work, Tina takes matters into her own hands in a move so outrageous and offensive that the play achieves its goal as a campy sendup of a 1950s melodrama. Let the games begin!

How is the Winter Park Playhouse production?

The play’s descent into vicious backstabbing and “It’s all about me” hysteria gets a glorious run through by an outstanding cast. Warhol and Waters would truly have been thrilled at Kevin Kelly’s performance as Sylvia, in the way he so completely embodies the former actress now eager to find new talent and lead them to stardom. Sylvia is a woman with secrets — many, as it turns out — and Kelly’s performance is an absolute scream.

The same is true for Paisley Rayle as Tina and Stefanie Diaz as Miss Thorne. Tina’s oversized ego and vicious desire to land the big part in the school’s play makes her one of the nastiest little beastie kids since The Bad Seed, and Rayle plays her to perfection. And Diaz has a grand time as an embittered old teacher who hates, hates, hates kid.

Rebecca Fisher has her own moments of hilarity as Judy, the sweet housewife confronted with quite the dilemma when Tina acts far too aggressively to win the part, and Cami Miller as Lita and Hannah McGinley Lemasters as Eve chew the scenery so masterfully that you wish they had larger roles. The same is true for Shir Love as the whiny, lazy and talentless Louise Lerman.

Director Roy Alan keeps the pace delightfully frantic and there’s first rate musical accompaniment by Christopher Leavy on piano, Ned Wilkinson on fiddle and mandolin and Sam Forrest on percussion. It all adds up to the cherry on top of a deliciously over the top production.

Where Can I See Ruthless! The Musical

Ruthless! The Musical continues now through Oct. 15 at the theater at 711 Orange Ave. in Winter Park. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings at 7:30, Thursday, Friday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and select Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. 

Tickets are $46 for evening shows ($43 for seniors), $39 for matinees, and $20 for students and theatrical industry professionals. Student rush “$10@10” offers $10 tickets (for students ages 15 to 25 years) 10 minutes prior to a performance when seats are available.

To purchase tickets, call the box office at 407-645-0145 or visit online at  www.winterparkplayhouse.org  

Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.

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