Talent. Either you’ve got it. Or you don’t. Luck for you, The Heritage Players production of Ruthless! has got it. And they’ve got it pouring out of their wazoos in spades. Directed & Choreographed by Ashley Gerhardt with Musical Direction by Michael Clark, this zany and uproarious musical send-up will have your gut aching with laughs. Nobody’s in the mud, nobody’s in distress in this production— except the characters themselves— and it’s a madcap scream from simple start to diabolical finish. Rarely produced (and this time by household favorite Lenny Taube), this screaming send-up to Gypsy and the like will have you laughing your head off the whole time.
Assistant Director and Set Designer Jim Gerhardt heard
Sylvia St. Croix say “It’s all banana splits when you’ve got talent” and ran
with it for his scenic design concept in the first half of the production. The
quaint 1950’s-esque living room looks like a neatly divided ice cream sundae.
Gerhardt has laid out the three wall panels carefully (with dainty floral curtains
to bridge the joins between their gaps) and accented them with evenly-spaced
portraiture. Muted strawberry border trim neatly frames the chocolate
base-board paneling, and the two flanking walls are a soft minty green while
the central wall remains a warm vanilla color. Everything about the set is
detailed— from the rotary dial phone mounted on the wall to the grandiose
family portrait of Tina, Judy, and a
Flower Vase Frederick (who?)— and
even more so for the plush penthouse apartment that lies in wait on the other
side. Act II flips the scene to sleek and chic and magnifique NYC penthouse
apartment and Gerhardt flips the set to do to the same, in tones of silver,
gray, and black. Have a look and listen to see if you can catch Gerhardt’s
performance cameos in the production as well; they’re just aces.
Crafting the parody nature of the production’s aesthetic also falls into the lap of Costumer Sally Kahn and Wig Designer Tommy Malek (there’s even a line late in the second act— “my hairdresser Tom”— which just signified early on that Malek had to be hired to do the hair in the show.) All of the curled coifs and perfectly pinned locks for each of the characters are a marvel thanks to Malek; each unique hairstyle suits the personality of the character and adds a layer of complimentary style to Kahn’s sartorial selections. The dainty little dresses— oooooh!— featured on both Tina and Judy are so cute you want to scream like Dainty June. And the sinfully slick aesthetic shift follows the costumes into the second act, where Kahn outfits Ginger DelMarco in a shimmer dress that just screams Broadway flare.
Mark Scanga’s Lighting Design is understated, calling attention to key moments when it is needed. A spotlight here (well operated by Tommy Peter), a red flush there; nothing is overly complicated and this fluid use of “less is more” serves the show well. Hands down the praises of design go to Stuart Kazanow, who has now set the bar for sound design at future Heritage Players extremely high, because he’s tamed the wild beast that is the hapless audio system in The Rice Auditorium. With a three person pit (led by Michael Clark) and a drum pad rather than a live drum kit, the sound is balanced, and Kazanow has worked miraculous magic with the microphones, preventing drops, blowouts, and sparks of inconsistency, which have oft been known to ruin the enjoyment of an otherwise good show at this venue in the past. The sound has literally never sounded better and Kazanow is owed a great deal of praise for that.
Ruthless in her own right when it comes to precision on the stage, Director Ashley Gerhardt has everyone’s jaw dropping because the production is quite seamless, impressively paced, and intensely cohesive. (Shout out to Stage Manager Atticus Cooper Boidy, who keeps things moving behind the scenes!) It’s well-balanced— the careful line between camp and truth is stretched tautly over the production— moves with efficiency and the talent featured on the stage is astonishing. And all of this is of course within a seasoned and skilled director’s wheelhouse, expected in fact of those who’ve been around the directorial block, but Gerhardt is a directorial first timer, making Ruthless! her directorial debut. That makes the precision, excellence, and overall professionalism that occurs in the production that much more impressive. The blocking is strong and consistent with firm handles of authenticity— even in the “cheating moments” that the script indicates. There is never a gum-up of traffic on the stage, the transitions run like a well-oiled machine, and the overall pace is tight without feeling rushed. And Gerhardt’s selection of cast is outstanding. Plus she’s choregraphed the handful of dance routines that pop up in the performance (with addition choreography in the tap routine provided by TapMaster Katie Sheldon.) Gerhardt was born with directorial talent…she should be more careful. To use it more often!
With a cast of just six, Ruthless! is a sheer delight, a lovely musical theatre treat this time of year (when everyone else is busy gathering up Rocky Horror and Dracula.) And this cast of six weaves their talent— and boy ever do they have it— together into one extraordinary night of great theatre. Director Ashley Gerhardt has really worked her cast into their character niches but in a cohesive fashion that enables each of the characters to really gel with one another. They’re all vying for the spotlight in their own right but in a cooperative, ensemble fashion (which makes zero sense to read, but you’ll feel it when you see it.)
Jen Retterer, playing first Louise and then Eve, is a scene-stealing hilarity when it comes to her character choices, particularly her vocal affectations. Retterer’s portrayal of Louise— the talentless hack whose parents bought her lead in the school play— is uproarious, you’ll find it difficult not to laugh at her antics as she drags herself through “The Pippi Song.” (And the absurd costume only furthers the laughter.) Of course her portrayal of Louise doesn’t begin to hold a candle to the absolute insanity that she produces as Eve on the other side of the intermission. “Penthouse Apartment” is the bust-out number that rages with hysterical insanity and earns gut-busting laughter from the audience as she bobble-belts her way through the ludicrous lyrics of the number.
Coarse and drunk, Lita Encore (Jennifer Georgia) hates musicals. (But loves hats. FABULOUS hats.) And her quirky little gestures— mostly trying to sneak her flask— make the character pop. Georgia gets one big musical opportunity, “I Hate Musicals” wherein a great amount of mockery to musicals trips straight off her tongue and into the audience’s ears. (Ruthless! did it first, Something Rotten.) Georgia’s voice isn’t the belting blast bomb of sound in all the notes of the song, but that’s okay because she’s built a larger than life character up all around it and really settles into the skin of that character, especially in this number. It also makes every one of her entrances rather hilarious because you know what’s going to follow once she storms through the door.
Those who can’t do…bitch and complain about how they wish they could but hate teaching. That, in a nutshell (because this show is NUTS) is Miss Thorn (Amy Haynes Rapnicki.) And as the show says, there are no lousy songs, just lazy singers. And Rapnicki is far from a lazy singer, really belting her way through “Teaching Third Grade.” (Seriously, the musical should be called Ruthless!: The Show Where Everyone Belts All The Time.) With deadpan sarcasm that parodies and channels a great many stage legends before her, there is a bristly edge to her characterization that just adds layers and levels of humor to her performance that can’t be beat. When she starts talking through her cigarette, it’s hysterical. And her final moments on stage— complete with her muttered ad-libs— are to die for.
Larger than life seems like an insult that underwhelms the over-the-top and outrageous performance given by J Purnell Hargrove as Sylvia St. Croix. Ingesting glamour, and oozing it through his pores, Hargrove proves he was born to entertain, particularly when pushing six sorts of sassy behavior through “Talent.” Reappearing with a vicious vigor in the second act, all of that insane over-the-top charisma turns ugly for “I Want the Girl.” Hargrove is vocally smart, adjusting some of his sung lines to be spoke-sung so that the audience can cleanly hear the lyrics when the song meanders out beyond the edges of his vocal range. And his vocals blend delectably into duets like “Where Tina Gets It From”, a number shared with Judy. There is a surprising amount of restraint put forth in Hargrove’s performance as well; he really understands the balance of “melodramatic in the moment” verses hyper-theatrical for humor’s sake and it shows well in this role.
If you’re not careful, Lisa Pastella’s flawless portrayal of Stepford-smiling-Mother-of-the-Year Judy Denmark will put you into a diabetic coma. With a plastic smile that hardly comes unglued for her face, and a sugary voice that is elevated so high it’s almost at the dog-whistle range, this dippy pink bubble is so saccharine, she makes your teeth ache. Channeling every wholesome, happy house-wife-mother combo from the 50’s forward, Pastella is so character forward that you’ll almost die laughing. Her delightful solo, “Tina’s Mother” opens the production and it’s all terrifying hilarity from there. The subtle and then drastic shift into a more “Mama Rose” line of being comes gradually, but Pastella nails it. (Seriously, theatres considering mounting Gypsy, give Lisa Pastella a call.) And this makes her outrageous transformation to play Ginger in Act II that much more astonishing. The juxtaposition of innocent naïve “blonde-literalism” (responding to lines like “cold turkey” by saying she’ll check the ice box…) to the brass, edgy, ruthless Broadway Bitch is phenomenal; Pastella plays both superbly. And her vocal belting soars through the production, showcasing her versatile range. “It Can Never Be That Way Again” showcases the true maniacal nature of the character and it’s a true and proper scream.
Little Tina Denmark (Brooke Webster) is the perfect little dream child…of everyone’s nightmares. When she pops up as Puddles the dog during the school play rehearsal, if looks could kill, the whole audience would fall down dead. Webster, with extraordinarily powerful vocals— that maintain consistent pitch and timbre— is a gem, shining with blinding radiance all throughout this production. She’s also scary, giving everyone the psychotic creeps as she grins and skips her way through murder and things of the like. (It is a dark comedy…) Webster, who is channeling the shrilly precocious and annoyingly pretentious qualities of Gypsy’s ‘Dainty June’ (complete with ear-splitting shriek and show-off split), puts her talented mark on this production during numbers like “Born to Entertain” and “To Play This Part.” Don’t take your eyes off of her— largely because she’s so impressively talented (but also because she’s a murderous little diva who might be out to get you!)
The whole affair is— well— as its namesake, ruthless! But it’s hilarious, oddly uplifting, and exceptionally performed, directed, and produced. This is not a show you want to miss. The whole team was born with talent— and they should be more careful. To advertise it. To everyone in the area so that people get tickets to see this rarely produced gem, Ruthless!
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Ruthless! plays through November 10, 2019 at The Heritage Players in the Thomas Rice Auditorium of the Spring Grove Hospital Campus— 55 Wade Avenue in Catonsville, MD. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance online.