Twenty years ago or more, Phoenix Theatre operated a black box, where those of us who liked edgier plays and musicals could go for offbeat theater. Last week, the now 93-year-old company unveiled, as part of its multimillion-dollar renovation, a new black box space. Those of us who once laughed ourselves silly over campy Charles Busch comedies are older now and want more from our offbeat theater. And with the company's production of Ruthless! The Musical, we get it. Packed from end to end with faultless performances, this crafty campathon is a stunner.
See also: Black Theatre Troupe's Wedding Band Brings Controversial 1966 Play to Downtown Phoenix
Joel Paley's book and lyrics -- about a little girl who'll do anything to play the lead in the school musical -- provide a convulsion of nudging and winking at anyone up on their backstage stories. Nonstop references to All About Eve, Gypsy, and especially The Bad Seed offer fans of camp a long list of sneaky asides, and director/choreographer Michael Barnard (the company's artistic director) strings these together with a ton of style and a wise nod to lowbrow musicals of theater's past.
The cast is made up mostly of Phoenix Theatre veterans. What a blast to watch Debby Rosenthal send up Mama Rose as a clueless stage mother who winds up a star. Hearing her sing about housework and deliberately over-act as a third-rate Broadway star was nearly as much fun as watching Rusty Ferracane, in a glittery black skirt and eyelashes out to there, clutching a little girl dressed like Baby Jane Hudson and singing about stardom.
The supporting cast, all superb, nearly steals thunder from these two. Johanna Carlisle's magnificent mugging as a cruel theater critic is surpassed by her performance of a song called "I Hate Musicals." Rebecca Duckworth and Barbara McBain each provide a pair of well-timed, randy roles. And the pleasure of watching little Riley Glick sing and stomp as 9-year-old Tina was surpassed only by hearing her shout an expletive early in Act Two (her ballet combination isn't bad, either).
The versatile live band, led by resident musical director Alan Ruch, offers the perfect lounge-act swish and clatter to Marvin Laird's tunes, and Richard Farlow's colorful, static set is an intricate jigsaw puzzle. Watching the crew tear it down and rebuild it as a swanky New York penthouse during intermission was nearly as entertaining as all the rest of Barnard's fine production.
If there's a top-of-the-heap winner here, it's Adriana Diaz, whose costume design -- particularly a crimson dressing gown printed with ladies' shoes and trimmed in black feathers -- offers a parade of amusing frocks and furbelows that telegraph comedy as effortlessly as the actors -- all of whom appear to be having a ball.
Ruthless! The Musical continues through September 29, at 100 East McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.phoenixtheatre.com.