Review: Ruthless! (The Theatre Division)

theatredivisionVenue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Jun 19 – Jul 12, 2014
Book & Lyrics: Joel Paley
Music: Marvin Laird
Director: Lisa Freshwater
Cast: Katrina Retallick, Meredith O’Reilly, Margi de Ferranti, Caitlin Berry, Madison Russo, Geraldine Turner

Theatre review
The value of camp is found in its affiliation with irony and black comedy, but its inherent darkness is masked by insolent loudness, and often, political meanings are so extensively subverted that they become near invisible. Camp heroes like Carmen Miranda, Liza Minnelli, Bob Downe and seventies pop star Sylvester (to name just a few), are all iconic figures remembered for a certain frivolity, but they each represent something far more serious, which we can choose either to acknowledge, or ignore. Joel Paley and Marvin Laird’ Ruthless! is utterly and irrevocably camp, but it is also highly intelligent and sophisticated in its approach. Its themes of feminism, family and the American dream are key impetuses for its jokes and plot development, even if they are not explicitly dissertated. Instead, front and centre are the wittiest of lines, the most charming of show tunes, and the savagest of stories. This is a musical that has all the constituents of a cult hit, which is to say that it is not for everyone, but for those with whom it resonates, Ruthless! is a very special show indeed.

Lisa Freshwater’s direction is suitably bold. The material needs a brazen and fearless attitude, and Freshwater is certainly no shrinking violet. Wickedness lurks in every corner, and the director is never afraid to take full advantage of it for our benefit. The writing is a minefield of laughter, and she detonates at every opportunity. The characters have few redeeming features, but Freshwater manages to make each one bewitching. By ensuring that these women never seem realistic, their misdeeds are prevented from descending into too dark and threatening a space. Instead, they are always beguiling and glamorous, like the women in Disney films, only more animated.

Choreography by Christopher Horsey is dynamic and astute. He is always in on the joke, and provides a rich suite of tools for the performers to articulate in movement. The stage is always vibrant, and the women are always confident. Each gesture and posture is full of flair and calculated, forming part of the rich visual language that establishes the production’s brilliant effervescence. Also noteworthy is Mason Browne’s work as set and costume designer. His use of colour is exemplary, and the vividness he achieves with quite minimal elements is truly inspired.

The lead role Judy Denmark is played by Katrina Retallick with inconceivable talent and flair. It is sublime to witness an elite performer at the top of her game, and this is such an occasion. The performer glows throughout the show, with supreme grace, a flawless voice and a surprising mastery over the dark humour at hand. The role is a tricky one. It is challenging, technical, unconventional and confronting, and Retallick achieves it all with flying colours and devastating splendour.

Young performer Madison Russo is a revelation as the scene stealing Tina Denmark. Her vocal and dance abilities are impressive, and crucial to the effectiveness of the narrative. Caitlin Berry’s versatility is showcased perfectly, along with a stunning singing voice and a keen sense of acerbic humour. Margi de Ferranti plays both Miss Block and Myrna Thorn with exuberance, and claims the biggest laugh of the show with a gag about Miss Block’s sexuality and dress sense. Geraldine Turner is positively terrifying as the theatre critic who “hates anything to do with the theatre, that’s my job”, Lita Encore. Her performance of “I Hate Musicals” is reason enough to buy a second ticket for another viewing. Meredith O’Reilly as Sylvia St Croix displays professional savvy and a stage presence that are impossible to ignore.

As Les Misérables celebrates its umpteenth opening in Melbourne this month, it is important to remember that popularity in the arts might mean fame and fortune, but excelling in smaller theatres under ridiculous constraints of all kinds is a greater glory. Ruthless! will never see the financial success of Phantom and Saigon (“if I want helicopters, I’d go to the airport!” says Lita Encore), but for those of us who yearn for something with bite, and that provides its cast with nowhere to hide but to rely only on sheer talent, this is a show to ruthlessly champion for.