What’s the theatrical equivalent of “inside the Beltway?” Whatever the correct phrase, it applies to “Ruthless!,” a successful but in-jokey Off-Broadway musical that is likely to appeal to a rather limited audience outside of New York.
This campy send-up of several classic backstage dramas will be loved by theater fanatics who enjoy broad humor. Those outside that narrow category will find it overlong and more tedious than amusing.
This is the sort of show in which pointless puns are savored, plot twists are telegraphed literally hours in advance, and the actors are encouraged to mug their way through their roles. While Melvin Laird’s score is enjoyable, if not particularly memorable, Joel Paley’s book is more often silly than clever.
The story, based loosely on Maxwell Anderson’s “The Bad Seed,” concerns a third-grader who wants the lead in the school play so badly that she murders the girl who gets the part. Her agent, a former actress, finds this quite understandable. But her mother is appalled — until she, too, begins to feel the desire to become a star. In “Ruthless!” theatrical talent and ambition are seen as a sort of disease that virtually takes a person over, devouring whatever humanity and good sense he or she once possessed. That’s a workable idea for a comedy, and the play does contain some funny lines.
But, for non-fans of the style, its campy, over-the-top humor wears out its welcome long before the 2 1/2-hour show reaches midpoint.
The cast is dominated by 8-year-old Lindsay Ridgeway, who gives an energetic and thoroughly professional performance as Tina. It is undeniably amusing to watch this tot adopt all the standard mannerisms of a Broadway belter, including clenched fists and anguished facial expressions.
The most notable of the adult actors is Rita McKenzie, who does a decent Ethel Merman impersonation in the role of an acerbic theater critic. In a bit of sex-blind casting, the role of Tina’s female agent is performed by a man, Loren Freeman, who fits into the ensemble with ease.
The sets — caricatures of a suburban living room and a Manhattan penthouse apartment — have a certain amount of wit, and there is a good sight-gag concerning the portrait of Tina on the back wall.