Before there was JonBenét Ramsey and Honey Boo Boo, there was Tina Denmark, the fictional tyke created from the twisted mind of Joel Paley, who wrote Ruthless! (along with music by Marvin Laird) in 1992. The campy off-Broadway show won the 1993 New York Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and quickly gained a cult following. Now, more than 20 years later, Tina returns in a revival directed and staged by its creator.
Ruthless! follows young Tina Denmark (Tori Murray) as she claws and kills her way to the lead role in a school production of Pippi Longstocking. Her Donna Reed-like mother, Judy (Kim Maresca), seems oblivious to Tina’s mischievous ways, which are only exacerbated by the appearance of a mysterious mentor and career coach, Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land). Add the play’s director Miss Thorn (Andrea McCullough) and the famous theater critic Lita Encore (Rita McKenzie) into the mix, and the stage is set for campy double takes and scenery-chewing camp.
I imagine Ruthless! doesn’t have quite the sting as it did when the musical opened in 1992. Reality television and social media have desensitized the masses, and the show’s over-the-top plot line and style feel dated. With the exception of Land’s devilishly gangly interpretation of Sylvia St. Croix—a combination of Gypsy’s Mama Rose and Bea Arthur in her heyday—the rest of the cast are one-note wonders. The show’s star-to-be, Murray has a piercing belt but is vacant in the eyes. Maresca, as her mother, does her best Judy Cleaver but comes into her own in the show’s latter half when stage mom becomes star.
Ruthless! could use less style and more substance but theatergoers looking for a lighthearted, old-school Off Broadway comedy might overlook its clichés. Here’s what the critics think…
Surprisingly, the drag queen ends up giving one of the more committed and believable performances. Decked out in fabulous old-lady gear (splendid costumes by Nina Vartanian), Land is spectacularly over-the-top as Sylvia yet completely grounded in the improbable tragedy of the story. He plays particularly well off the equally heightened Maresca, who executes an awesome character transformation from June Cleaver to Joan Collins. Theatermania
…It’s no wonder The Bad Seed has never been revived, but it was inevitable that four decades later the idea that homicidal tendencies are inherited would return—as a musical! The result was Ruthless!, a campy hit that ran for a solid year in 1992 with a cast that included Sylvia Miles, as well as Britney Spears and Natalie Portman as understudies. When I reviewed it, I called Ruthless! “malicious and delicious.” I’m happy to report the new Off-Broadway revival at the envelope-sized St. Luke’s Theatre has lost none of its piss and vinegar. Observer
St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th Street, NYC
RUTHLESS! The Musical’s leading man, Peter Land, collapsed onstage at the top of the second act on Friday evening, July 17th. EMT’s arrived on the scene and Mr. Land was transported to the hospital where he received emergency surgery for a tear in the aorta. His recovery is going extremely well and he was even discharged from the hospital earlier this week. Paul Pecorino has assumed the role of Sylvia St. Croix and Mr. Land hopes to return to the show in the near future. Author Joel Paley bravely filled in for several performances in the week following the accident (triumphantly, according to all eyewitnesses).