“Ruthless,” the latest No Square Theatre production staged by Bree Burgess Rosen and directed by Joe Lauderdale, has even more twists and turns than the hills of Laguna Beach.
Lauderdale describes the musical penned by Joel Paley with music by Marvin Laird as “Gypsy” meets “The Bad Seed” or “All About Eve” and a bit of “Hamlet.” It’s a send-up of Broadway musicals where after countless plot convolutions all the right characters get their comeuppance somehow.
The show opens Friday, Aug. 3 at Legion Hall, 384 Legion St., at 7:30 p.m. and runs through Aug. 12. Tickets are $20 online.
Much of the first act focuses on Tina Denmark, an 8-year-old vying for the lead in her school’s impending play “Pippi in Tahiti: The Musical” and Judy Denmark her seemingly talent deprived and witless mother.
Lisa Mansour, familiar to local audiences for her participation in the annual “Lagunatics” roast, embodies third grade teacher Miss Thorn and later a reporter named Miss Block with just the right dose of hilarity. Her character calls teaching something to “fall back on” while inhabiting wackily sensible shoes and an ersatz Chanel suit like someone born to a fifth-floor New York walk-up. As Miss Thorn, she casts Louise Lerman, the less charismatic student with well-connected parents, as Pippi, a fatal mistake as it turns out.
As Louise’s ambitious competitor, Tina first tries to convince her rival to relinquish the role. Failing that, she causes her to “accidentally” hang herself with a jump rope from a gym catwalk. The deed lands her at the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues, a reform school that fails in its mission. Tina eventually gets released to join her mother, who after various plot twists and turns is suddenly talented and famous and in New York.
Charlotte Rubino, 9, a fourth-grader this fall at Top of the World Elementary, has Tina, an insufferably saccharine, scheming and ultimately murderous brat down to a fine science. As she prances, dances, sings and cajoles her mother (Yvonne Browning, cast as Ginger Del Marco in the second act), using spot on facial expressions throughout, it’s easy to imagine her as the grown up actress she aspires to become. “I’ve been acting since I was 4,” she explained.
(She’s in good company: The original Tina was played by Laura Bell Bundy who grew up to become a well-regarded Broadway actress, with Natalie Portman and Britney Spears as understudies.)
“Still, pretty much everyone winds up dead,” said Lauderdale. But then let’s not give too much away here.
What sets the production apart is its cast of characters, replete with sleazy talent agent Sylvia St. Croix, played here with just the right aplomb by Paul Nygro. Aside from being endowed with the legs of a dancer, he choreographed the show. (Nygro also plays the mysterious Ruth Del Marco in the second act)
Originally “Ruthless” was intended for an all female cast. During auditions for the original off-Broadway production, no woman seemed strong enough to play Sylvia. Actor Joel Vig auditioned and won the role, said Lauderdale. “Since then casting a man to play Sylvia has become a tradition. But, we should not forget that Sylvia is not portrayed as a drag queen but as an over the top strong woman.”
Carol Robinson’s provides a great portrayal of Lita Encore, an ascerbic theater critic who can’t stand musicals but who somewhat incongruously arrives to review “Pippi.” It turns out that she fills another crucial role in the life of Judy and Tina. Sylvia, too, is more than she purports to be.
With No Square’s usual accompanist, Roxanna Ward, traveling in Europe, Michael Repper provides the play’s instrumental dramatics. A Stanford University graduate who grew up in Laguna Niguel, he gives Laird’s music a pronounced jazzy vibe by using a trio of piano, bass and drums.
“We’ve been talking about doing this show for three years and now it’s finally here,” said Lauderdale.