Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Actors’ Playhouse: Ruthless! The Musical (reviews)

logo_2013ruthlessActors’ Playhouse opened its production of Ruthless! The Musical at the Miracle Theater on October 9, 2013.

Winner of a Drama Desk Award and an Outer Critics Circle Award, Ruthless! The Musical is a gem of a satirical musical about the consuming drive for stardom. Move over Honey Boo Boo, this outrageous and hysterically funny runaway hit garnered rave reviews during its Off-Broadway run in the early 90s, and is ripe for a revival in today's celebrity driven world.

David Arisco directed  a cast that included Julia Dale, Amy Miller Brennan, Gabriel Zenon, Sally Bondi, Leigh Bennet, and Jeni Hacker.  Musical direction by Eric Alsford, with choreography by Nikkie Allred.

Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:

Everything about Ruthless! The Musical from dripping furs to the Ethel Merman voices, everything is over the top. Way over the top. Thank goodness. Well, actually, don’t thank goodness. As Mae West advised, “Goodness has nothing to do with it.” Ruthless is a gleefully uninhibited celebration of greed, venality, ambition and ego. In other words, show business.

Plot twists, intentionally transparent secrets, witty nods to shows like Gypsy and the infectious belt-a-thon of a score give director David Arisco, his cast and designers the proverbial field day.

The media attention prior to opening night has focused on Julia Dale, the 12-year-old Broward girl who brings beauty pageant charisma and Cat 5 vocal power to Tina. When she makes her big tap dance entrance and sings “I was born to entertain,” the audience is bought and paid for. It’s like when Andrea McArdle came center stage with a mangy cur and sang about the sun coming out tomorrow.

But the linchpin is someone else. It’s embarrassing to once again express surprise at rediscovering the talent and skill of Amy Miller Brennan. As Tina’s cookie-baking, pearl-bedecked shrinking violet of a mother and (major spoiler alert) as the transmogrified Broadway star with an unbridled ego and arrogance, Brennan is jaw-droppingly excellent from her buttermilk and bourbon voice to her deft handling of broad comedy.

Gabriel Zenone is clearly having a hoot playing the pragmatic Sylvia, a part traditionally played by a man in drag. Commendably, other than once dropping into his natural baritone for one verse, Zenone and Arisco never even wink at the fact that the character is being played as a man – which makes it all the funnier.

Leigh Bennett steals every scene she’s in with her deliciously vicious portrayal of a theater critic who loathes the art form but loves pouring toxic venom all over a production.

Ellis Tillman’s costume design is absolutely fabulous, maybe marking a personal best. With a show set amorphously around the 1950s or 1960s, he has let himself go wild…  Each outfit is an extension of character, but all of them formed as wicked a satire as anything else in the show.

Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:

Despite its scary little leading lady… Ruthless! is played strictly for laughs, in this case as many as director David Arisco and his talented cast can wring from a script packed with puns, sardonic lines and rapid-fire allusions to the likes of Gypsy and All About Eve.

Dale is making her professional theater debut in Ruthless!, but within minutes it’s clear that this show will be the first of many for the extraordinarily talented Davie seventh grader. Arisco and musical director Eric Alsford bring out the best in a young performer who seems destined for great things.

As Judy and Ginger, Amy Miller Brennan gets to demonstrate her versatility in two different-as-can-be roles. Her Judy is a touch too square and spacy… But Miller Brennan is a wonderfully witchy Ginger, a glamorous narcissist without a maternal bone in her body.

Gabriel Zenone… turns his first drag role into an ode to all those wisecracking movie dames who were quicker and more clever than everyone around them.

Leigh Bennett gets her Ethel Merman on as Lita Encore, a vicious critic (a stereotype irresistible to wounded show folk) whose family ties mean nothing when it’s time to break out the poison pen. Jeni Hacker chews most of the second act scenery, as well she should, playing Ginger’s nutty personal assistant Eve. And Sally Bondi gets to play two crazy dames, Tina’s less-than-ethical third grade teacher and a journalist with a bit too much personal interest in Ginger.

Roger Martin reviewed for miamiartzine:

So it’s fun you want and a terrific evening of musical theatre?  Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.  Just scoot on over to Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre and grab a seat to Ruthless! The Musical.

It’s a comic’s delight and director David Arisco and his cast hammer every gag and song to the ultimate.

Amy Miller Brennan is the kid’s mother and she turns in one of the funniest performances of the season.  I can’t decide what gave me the greatest pleasure, her acting or her singing.

Tina, the prodigy, is played by a real life whiz bang singer/actor/dancer, twelve year old Julia Dale.  Normally I’d rather deflea the dogs than watch kids on stage, but Miss Dale has not only terrific talent but also that rare quality that makes you like her, scene after scene after scene.  Quick, give me more.

Gabriel Zenone is in drag, making talent agent Sylvia St Croix the epitome of sleaze, cheap glamour and banal secrets.  

Leigh Bennett as theatre critic Lita Encore stopped the show with “I Hate Musicals”. Jeni Hacker is hilarious as both school kid Louise Lerman and Eve, personal assistant to the star and Sally Bondi does well with the dual roles of school teacher Miss Thorn and reporter Miss Block. 

Jack Gardner reviewed for Edge Miami:

The Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables, Florida opens their 2013-2014 season with "Ruthless! The Musical," which features a cast of six very strong performers.

The highlights of this production are the performances. At the top of the list is Amy Miller Brennan who delivers a tour de force performance as the multiple personality mother, Judy Denmark…  If hers were the only strong performance, the production would still be worth seeing...

Gabriel Zenone takes on the drag role of Ruth St. Croix and delivers to the audience a mix of Bette Davis coupled with an Elaine Stritch-like voice. He is campy and funny, and he looks good in a dress.

Julia Dale portrays Tina Denmark, the troubled child with a star obsession. Dale can sing, there is no doubt about it, and at her young age she is showing signs of quickly becoming a theatrical professional. She doesn’t manage to steal the show from the adults, but she is more than capable of holding her own.

In her role as Lita Encore, Leigh Bennett is spot on in her characterization of this very Ethel Merman-like character. The mannerisms and voice were so realistic that someone needs to revive both Call Me Madam and Gypsy for her as soon as humanly possible.

Seeing Brennan on stage alone is well worth the ticket price. But when you couple her with the other five members of the cast, the audience is getting a lot of talent for very little money.

Actors’ Playhouse presents its production of Ruthless! The Musical at the Miracle Theater through November 3, 2013.

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