Ruthless! ain’t toothless, and for that we can be grateful. In a city largely inundated with anodyne musicals (exhibit A: Mamma Mia!), Ruthless! opens as a refreshingly amoral take on such sappy tuners as 42nd Street and A Star Is Born. Penned with obvious glee by Joel Paley and Marvin Laird (and in fact sharing a certain satirical sensibility with Fox Network’s break-out Glee), Ruthless! follows the career trajectory of ambitious third-grader Tina Denmark, a remarkably adorable combination of Little Orphan Annie and Satan. When Tina vies for the lead in an elementary-school version of Pippi Longstocking in Tahiti — a production, it transpires, of both dubious legality and artistry — she encounters for the first time the bane of all aspiring ingénues: talented competition. How can little Tina possibly triumph over the twin forces of goodness and meritocracy?
Fortunately, the musical reinforces the timeless pedagogical maxim that violence is always the answer; and so Tina begins the first of the musical’s many forays into non-musical territory, including nods to such melodramatic camp-fests as The Bad Seed and All About Eve. After Tina’s theatrical rival meets a mysterious end — if only she had been exhorted apotropaically to “break a neck!” — the musical shifts its focus from the machinations of little Tina to the psychological journey of her flawless hausfrau mother, Judy (whose last name might as well be Jetson). As in any fine farce, Judy is forced to watch the devolution of her perfect little world into a maelstrom of ambition, back-stabbing, and jazz hands — and Katy Moore has the comic chops (and light soprano) necessary for Judy’s surprising transformation.
Director Vivienne Elborne has crafted a generally strong supporting ensemble. As tiny Tina, Athena Boneta — a triple-threat actor, singer, and dancer — knocks ’em dead, in oh-so-many ways. In fact, when Boneta-as-Tina disappears for long stretches of act two, the musical’s energy flags a bit. Sure, she’s homicidal demon-spawn, but we sort of miss her. Meanwhile, fellow fifth-grader Estee Steves gives Boneta a run for her money in the hilariously awful “The Pippi Song,” a number that perfectly captures the dopiness of elementary-school pageants. Fresh from a similarly gender-bending stint in Psycho Beach Party, Greg Hinojosa successfully drags his high heels through the role of talent agent Sylvia St. Croix, while Amanda Farmer pulls double-duty as a closeted thespian (belting the soul-searing cri de coeur “Teaching Third Grade”) and as a yellow-journalist lesbian (the latter a thankless role that mostly serves as pun fodder).
Not all the casting is equally felicitous. Jane Haas chews the scenery as a sniping, supercilious, and corrosive theater critic (and I pause here for a moment of disquieting self-reflection; and now I continue), but can’t quite put over her one big number, “I Hate Musicals.” Styled as a parody of Ethel Merman’s showstoppers in e.g. Gypsy, the song only works if its irony is transparent: It needs a gigantic Broadway voice — with a vibrato that can shatter granite — in order to express the composer’s love of bombast even as the character detests it. Similarly, Stephanie Bull gamely essays the role of a ruthless — er, ruthless! — personal assistant, but doesn’t always exude the oversized stage presence of her cast mates. The mysterious Onoshi Dident contributes a versatile unit set, though a second act switch to Manhattan could use more, and swankier, stage dressing.
Voice-overs were sometimes awkwardly and confusingly cued, and opening night’s performance included a delayed start and an overlong intermission — the curtain finally fell at 10:40 p.m., or about a half-hour later than optimal. (This is Ruthless!, after all, not Iceman Cometh!) But it’s a tribute to the effervescence of the cast and the material that Ruthless! more-or-less bubbles along to the end. Though neither flawless! nor timeless! the Cameo’s production is nevertheless witty and delightfully campy. I’d be truthless to report Ruthless! as anything less. •