Saturday 9 March 2024

RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL - Musical Theatre Review

WHAT: Ruthless! The Musical
WHEN: 1 - 24 March 2024
WHERE: Alex Theatre
BOOK & LYRICS BY: Joel Paley
MUSIC BY: Marvin Laird
DIRECTED BY: Chelsea Matheson
MUSICAL DIRECTION BY: Dave Barcay and Ned Dixon
SET DESIGN BY: Damien Jones
PERFORMED BY: Olivia Charalambou, Dolly Diamond, Chloe Halley, Stephanie Astrid John, Britnie Leslie and Emma Clair Waxman
SOUND DESIGN BY: Rhiannon Gilmore

Britnie Leslie, Chloe Halley and Dolly Diamond - photo by Angel Leggas

The nights are stupidly hot at the moment, and the weeks are still long. I can think of few better ways of getting through life right now than sitting in an elegant theatre and watching a light-hearted musical with outrageously glamourous costumes and a dark heart. Ruthless! The Musical, playing at the Alex Theatre, is just the ticket (pardon the pun) to help us get through the remnants of summer. There is the added bonus of being able to go for a late night stroll along the beach afterwards too.

Ruthless! The Musical is a parody of stage mum stories like Gypsy, has more than a slight whiff of the darkness of Sweeney Todd, and an ending to rival Hamlet. Created by Joel Paley and Marvin Baird in 1992, Ruthless is the story of an 8 year old dancing/singing prodigy who learns at a young age that success is a combination of talent and opportunity - and sometimes you have to actively create the opportunity. Or is it? Ruthless has a lot of fun twists and turns as it meanders across the evening. In 2015 Paley created a 90 minute version of the show but I don't think this is that version as Stagebug's production goes for just over 2 hours including interval. Surprisingly I did not find this a problem which speaks to how much fun the show is.

Ruthless is visually stunning. Damien Jones' set design sits squarely in the style of the genre and whilst the costumes and set do have a candy pink theme, Jone's never lets it overtake the scenic tableaux just as Britni Leslie (costumes) also reigns the colour in just enough to stop it from becoming sickly and overwhelming. The detail in all the costumes is incredible but your jaw will literally drop to the floor when you see Ginger Delmarco's (Leslie) gown in Act 2. That is the dress dreams are made of!

Ruthless is not a perfect production. I have issues with some directorial (Chelsea Matheson) choices. The performers all work far too much to the audience. I honestly found myself looking behind me to see if there was conductor cam up in the mezzanine or if the band was actually up there rather than backstage. Neither of those things were true. I know it is a part of the genre to sing out but, at least in the acting parts, it would be nice to believe the characters are speaking to each other. Otherwise, what is the difference between full staging and a staged concert? It would give more power to the moments the actors are breaking the fourth wall with the audience if they aren't looking straight at us the whole time.

In the same vein - and maybe because of the lack of connection with each other - the characters lean too far into the cartoonish IMO. I would have loved to see some of the human underneath. If we don't get that hint of real emotion, real thought process, then it is hard to find a reason to care about the characters. Too much of the performance was playing the text and not the subtext. 

There were some exceptions. Olivia Charalambous in the tiny role of Louise Lerman was a show stealer, and Stephanie Astrid Jones gave us great hints about the potential complexity of a life surprisingly lived.

Leslie as Judy Denmark was a bit annoying with that typical chipmunk voice so common in female roles in American musicals. When playing Ginger Delmarco, however, she settles into a wonderfully sophisticated performance. Dolly Diamond was everything you expect which is exactly what the role of Sylvia St Croix demands. Seeing Diamond in this role is enough reason on its own to see this production of Ruthless. I don't know when or if we will ever get to see her in a role this incredible again.

The musical direction (Dave Barcay and Ned Dixon) is clean and precise and, for the most part, the singing is powerful. I did wonder if the voices are starting to get tired though, with Leslie missing a couple of key high notes and both Leslie and Chloe Halley (Tina Denmark) sounding a bit screechy across the whole show. I recommend they stop pushing so hard and rely on the microphones a bit more to soften their tone and be kind to their vocal chords. 

I admit, Halley's portrayal of Tina annoyed me quite a bit too. It is hard to be an adult playing a child because it is too easy to fall into irritating and noisome. I know because I have made that mistake myself. No matter how bratty a real child is, they still have a sweet innocence and tenderness - when they want to - which is hard to emulate as an adult. Halley needs to find those genuine moments of sweetness and hope to really make Tina come alive. If she can find that in the character, this would allow her to also find some of that softness in her singing I was talking about a moment ago. She needs to channel a bit more of the younger Shirley Temple.

These grumbles are quite minor though, in a show jam-packed with fun and mirth, bright sets, and glorious costumes. Jason Bovaird's lighting keeps the pace and movement flowing without drowning the show with tricks. Just like the other design elements, he creates a panorama of light with just enough candy colour to give texture. Rhiannon Gilmore's sound system allows the theatre to fill with the sounds of the band and singers whilst maintaining perfect clarity. Not a word is lost in the singing. Not a beat of a drum drowns the piano. It is an impressive mix and I have been to a few commercial musicals which could learn a thing or two from Gilmore I reckon.

This production of Ruthless! The Musical is light and fun. It has a lusciously dark heart, some twists you won't see coming at all and some you will (which is part of the fun), and it is a visual spectacular.

4 Stars

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