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–L to R: TORI MURRAY as Tina Denmark and KIM MARESCA as her mother
photos Carol Rosegg

                                               by Glenn Giron

Ruthless! spends 90 minutes poking fun at the structure and ideals of American musical comedies and movie musicals.  Writer and director Joel Paley, who helmed the original 92' Off-Broadway production, hasn’t written a single line in the book that isn’t loaded with word play or puns, much like you’d see or hear in Singin’ in the Rain or The Bad Seed.   The timing is quick almost to the point that a joke never has a chance to land before another one is uttered. The most valuable of these many jokes are given to Tina, the show’s 10-year-old ingénue.  The brilliance of the writing here is that the only sophisticated and adult humor throughout the entire show comes from a little girl in the form of curse words or thought provoking dialogue instead of predictable word play.  Tori Murray brings such sure-footed adult presence to the role of Tina that it is no surprise she becomes a “ruthless” fame-seeking lunatic.  However, Tina is just one of the show's bevy of murderous, power hungry broads.


Photos: Carol Rosegg

The show’s first number is one of the most honest.  Kim Maresca opens singing “Tina’s Mother” where Judy answers phone call after phone call of people praising her talented daughter.  A career Judy herself never tried to chase as she thought herself ‘talentless.’  Eventually Tina’s talents find the attention of a ‘has been’ theater manager by the name of Sylvia St. Croix played brilliantly by Peter Land who takes Tina under her wing.  Sylvia is your stereotypical middle-aged theater woman of the genre. She is quick witted, sassy, unapologetic, and probably a feminist.  Everything that Judy is not.  Judy is mousy, simple, and loves cleaning and buying whiskey for her husband.  It is this polarity that makes for some of the funnier moments on stage. When Land and Maresca share a scene, and especially when little Tina and show business become the topic of conversation, hilarity ensues and sarcasm and word play attach themselves to every syllable.  

Eventually we are introduced to Miss Thorn who brings with her the show’s inciting incident, the chance for Tina to be the lead in the school play, which Miss Thorn writes and directs. Miss Thorn, is of course, ruthless.  As it does in Musical Comedy, things go terribly wrong.  Tina lands the understudy part because of politics, the lead is mysteriously killed which is only mysterious for five seconds, and secret pasts slowly reveal themselves.  Lita Encore, Tina’s Grandmother and ruthless critic, is most involved in these dark pasts.  Rita McKenzie executed this role brilliantly.  Lita Encore is by far the coldest in her evil ways.  She is the most aware that bad wins and back stabbing, self serving artists are the people who finish on top. She is also the least apologetic for this having to be the way things are.  McKenzie gets the pleasure of singing one of the show's most famous songs, “I Hate Musicals” and she does it winningly.

What kept the songs from being perfectly enjoyable is the sound design in this 'pingy' little theater. Designer John Grosso could have trusted some of the actors' own amplification.  At times the songs were sung just too loudly to be enjoyed which is due to the fact that their mic's were turned all the way up.

Unfortunately Marvin Laird’s music all sounded the same, and the lyrics by Joel Paley are simple and predictable. The only song that stands out besides "I Hate Musicals" is sung by Judy titled, “It Will Never be That Way Again” which tells of how Judy misses the simple life and of how she joneses for mundane tasks such as cleaning and laundry.  All sung while enjoying the lavish life of a Broadway star living in her New York City Penthouse.   The irony of this number is spot on and much appreciated and it is the only time subtle humor is given a chance to thrive.  It's around this moment where one must tip a hat to the costume designer Nina Vartanian as well as the Set Designer Josh Iacovelli.  These two aspects were the only two consistently honest elements in the play.  The costumes were spot on as far as the period goes and given the little playing space Iacovelli designed lavish and fully realized sets that transform completely for what would be the show's second act and he does so during one proscenium number.                                                                                                                    

All in all the show never lets up and is possibly dated.  It is pun after pun and ham, after cheesy line, after a surprising, out of nowhere curse word from a 10 year old.  And just as the audience is about to have enough, it tops itself, doesn’t apologize for being insane, and the audience buys back in and stays on board for death after death and plot twist after plot twist.  Almost as if to say, “well I’ve bought into everything leading up to this, I don’t want to cash out now” and they’re ‘all in’.  And then the moral of the story is revealed.  Ruthlessness wins – it’s insane, but true and all you can do is laugh at it.

St. Luke’s Theater
308 West 46th Street.
Tickets are on sale through September 12th Online at or by calling the box office at 212-239-6200.