My Left Footlight

Remember camp? It was that over-the-top ironic sensibility that gained favor in the Sixties, and one assumed that, like Dada, in time it would find its way to the dung heap of history. But here we are 30 years later, and some people still have not lost their taste for camp, if "taste" and "camp" can be used in the same sentence.

The cause of these ruminations is Ruthless! The Musical, the season-opening production of Actors Theatre of Phoenix. ATP has a new producing artistic director in Matthew Wiener, but he cannot be held responsible for this lamebrained enterprise--commitments already had been made before he joined the staff. Judging from his past work at Arizona Theatre Company, we can expect a brighter future for ATP. That is, if it can survive Ruthless!.

This trite story of the boundless ambition of backstage mothers opened off Broadway in New York in 1992, and played for 302 performances. It was written and directed by Joel Paley, with forgettable music by Marvin Laird. There is little danger you will walk away humming a tune from this show. In what must have been a desperate year, Ruthless! received the Outer Critics' Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical.

Drag acts having become obligatory this season, the role of Sylvia St. Croix is played by Jerry Wayne Harkey, as what should easily qualify as the ugliest woman of the year. Let us hope.

The convoluted yet schematic plot concerns a child prodigy who demonstrates little talent besides an unfailing instinct for the jugular. Little Tina, a precocious brat who has followed in the steps of Shirley Temple, is a moppet with a head of blond sausage curls. She's determined to have the leading role in her grade school play, an adaptation of the Pippi Longstocking saga called Pippi in Tahiti.

Her mother, Judy Denmark, is a demure suburban housewife, adopted when she was 7 by a famous drama critic, Lita Encore. Into their bland suburban lives comes Sylvia, an erstwhile talent agent who wants to shepherd Tina to stardom. Much is made of the question "Where does talent come from?" Another burning question is whether talent is a blessing or a curse. Puzzling over the origins of Tina's gifts, Judy relates that her grandfather ran a television network. "No talent there!" sympathizes Sylvia. This is the kind of joke that made the audience roar in Los Angeles. When Tina loses the part of Pippi to a rival, she is urged to accept the position of understudy. From standby to murderer is only a matter of a well-timed nudge from a catwalk above the stage, a transition she makes with the lan of O.J. Simpson in a Hertz ad. Connie Francis is heard on the radio warbling, "Who's sorry now?"

Along the way, corny jokes proliferate. When Judy announces that she has quit smoking, she is asked, "Cold turkey?" She heads for the kitchen saying, "I don't think so, but I'll look."

The cast is a curiosity. The child star is played broadly by Elyse Beyer. It might be considered something of a joke that her singing is terminally flat, but it wasn't funny to these ears.

Debby Rosenthal sings strongly, and she is affecting in the part of the suburban mother. When the second act calls for her to become a star, however, she seems second rate.

Second rate is good compared to the third-rate performances around her. Only the rich vocalizations of Robyn Ferracane, in her trademark belting style, deliver genuine comic virtuosity.

Michael Barnard has directed with reckless disregard for the virtues of a light touch. When something is really funny, it does not require the actors to grab the joke by the throat or to relish villainy with a licking of the chops. Barnard's brutal style is a bloody mess.

The settings by Geoffrey M. Eroe are satirically appropriate, and Paul A. Black's imaginative lighting adds reality to the cardboard logic of the direction. Susan Johnson-Hood's costumes are suitably and effortlessly garish.

Ruthless! offers small pleasures to be mined from mountains of slag. Most of the audience seemed perplexed about the appropriate reaction. As a character notes, "Do you have any idea how many people you must destroy to succeed in this business?" I have tried not to be ruthless, but as the critic in the play remarks, "It's my job." Marshall W. Mason has won six Obie Awards for directing work by playwrights Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and Jules Feiffer. He is now a full professor of theatre at Arizona State University.

 
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