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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewHigh camp 'Ruthless!' is hilarious tonic for holiday overload

High camp ‘Ruthless!’ is hilarious tonic for holiday overload

Over-the-top New Conservatory production asks 'What if 'All About Eve,' but with school children?'

It’s a shame more storytellers don’t ask “What if All About Eve, but with school children?” Sure, they get great moral lessons from “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and the like, but you never hear about kids receiving essential information such as how fame can be both a literal and figurative cut-throat business. I guess the PTA must be too busy vilifying drag queens to consider it.

Lucky for us, both drag queens and Old Hollywood melodramas are central to Ruthless! (through January 7 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF), NCTC’s year-end musical for 2023. Like a great many drag shows, it does explicitly what the aforementioned melodramas did accidentally: encourage you to root for the villain.

Our tale as old as time—aesthetically resembling the 1950s, but with dialogue that occasionally includes contemporary anachronisms—brings us into the life of the Denmarks. Matriarch Judy Denmark (Mary Kalita), whose husband is somehow always elsewhere, is the very model of mid-century American housewifery. When she isn’t keeping her home spotless and lamenting her own “lack” of talent, she tries to be encouraging of the budding stage skills of her precocious and pigtailed daughter Tina (Melissa Momboisse).

‘Ruthless!’ Photo by Louis Tema

One day, the Denmarks are visited by glamourous admirer Sylvia St. Croix (J. Conrad Frank, aka Katya Smirnoff-Sky), who’s admired Tina’s talents from afar and now wants to manage the nascent star. The “untalented” Judy is reluctant, but with a little bit of gaslighting, Sylvia is backing Tina to get the lead role in her school’s production of a Pippi Longstocking musical. What follows is dark descent into showbiz malevolence involving Tina’s sexually-frustrated teacher Miss Thorn (Hayley Lovgren), Judy’s musical-hating theatre critic adoptive mother Lita Encore (Jacqueline De Muro), and Tina’s in-school rival for the role of Pippi, Louise (Lucca Troutman).

Naturally, it isn’t long before the bright lights of stardom blind all who gaze upon them.

Director Dyan McBride (whose scripts I once performed for an NCTC youth show) must have felt like a kid in a candy shop with what she was given: a script with Charles Busch-like perfect level of genre reverence and contemporary bawdiness (succeeding over NCTC’s own recent Busch production), songs that are genuinely catchy, a cast with the pipes to make them all fly, and an all-round excellent sense of comedic timing blended with just the right amount of scenery-chewing. If that’s not a way to relieve oneself of holiday stress, I don’t know what is?

‘Ruthless!’ Photo by Louis Tema

The cast have the daunting task of not only being talented, but being multi-talented, while cranking their characterizations up to 11. The petite Momboisse, for instance, not only has to sing like a bird and make Tina hilariously loud without being grating (if you aren’t on her side by the time she first utters “What the fuck?”, then the show has lost you), but she also has a Staci Arriaga-chroreographed tap routine thrown in—’cause why not? Under McBride’s direction, she and the rest of the cast find the right balance to make the show a laugh-a-minute roller coaster without feeling like they’re all trying too hard.

Even little jokes, like Miss Thorn’s beehive hairdo gaining an increasing number of pencils over the course of the show, work well because of how they don’t specifically try to draw one’s attention, but induce a chuckle once you notice them. So, too, is the script a Vaudevillian collection of rapid-fire quips where even if one doesn’t land, the next two likely will. And maybe it’s my having done theatre for so long from so many angles, but there are few things more hilarious than theatre critic Lita Encore singing about hating musicals. As a critic who loves musicals (and ballet), there’s an odd catharsis to watching a critic vent about the work they have to see just because they’re being paid to do so. It doesn’t hurt that Jacqueline De Muro is perfect in the role.

‘Ruthless!’ Photo by Louis Tema

I also had the added comfort of seeing the show during its only Enhanced Safety Performance. NCTC is still the only venue that’s checked for vaccine QR codes, but there was some problem with the app that night. Fortunately, I still keep my updated vax cards in a lanyard around my neck at all times. Although several audience members showed up somehow not knowing this was the masks-required performance, most of them were good about staying covered throughout the show. Still, the group behind me spent much of the pre-show kvetching about having to mask up in the first time in forever, and a couple two rows ahead came back from intermission without putting their masks back on. My Aranet4 read CO² levels of 1174ppm by the end of the show.

You don’t need me to tell you that this year has been a rough one—for theatre, for SF, and for the world at large. As we crawl towards the finish line of these 12 trying months, one can be grateful to the NCTC for sending us out comfortably with a gut-busting drag throwback to era idolized by those who want to ban drag queens. Ruthless! is a fine example of top-notch talent coming together for high camp, with everything mattering enough to be interesting, but light enough to where you won’t feel traumatized when someone – lots of folks – meet violent ends. After the year we’ve all had, we can use that sort of escape.

RUTHLESS! runs through January 7 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, SF. Tickets and further info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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