Tiny Tina Denmark is a showbiz dynamo in the making. She can sell a song like Rachel Berry on Glee, tap dance like a hybrid of Shirley Temple and Savion Glover, act as well as any of the kid stars on Modern Family. Despite being laser focused on her future career, she seems to be such a sweet, polite child.
Note that word “seems.” It’s appropriate, because the Tina Demark audiences come to know in Ruthless! The Musical is a diminutive blonde monster in a pink polka-dot dress.
Despite its scary little leading lady, Ruthless!, now kicking off the season at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables, is no hard-eyed look at a killer kid. Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s enduring 1992 Off-Broadway hit is a show that spoofs and celebrates a host of movies and musicals that came before it, notably the Maxwell Anderson-penned play and movie The Bad Seed. Yet 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.
Like Tina’s not-quite-right mom Judy, Ruthless! has a split personality that gets reflected in Tim Bennett’s strikingly different sets and .Ellis Tillman’s clever costumes.
The show’s over-long first act unfolds in Judy and Tina’s circa 1959 suburban home, which looks like a pink-and-blue Barbie Dream House on steroids. In that environment, bland and cautious Judy is a cross between an impeccably dressed ‘50s TV mom and one of the Stepford Wives. The second act jumps two years to the penthouse digs of Tony Award-winning Broadway star Ginger Del Marco, a gal who makes Patti LuPone look like a wallflower. Ruthless ambition swells to lethal levels at Ginger’s place, affecting everyone in the all-gal story. No prize for guessing which driven 8-year-old is the last diva standing.
Wanting to bring a bit of local star power to the role of Tina, Arisco turned to Julia Dale, the petite 12-year-old who wowed crowds with her powerhouse rendition of the National Anthem during the Miami Heat’s recent championship run. 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, and the repetitive actions layered into the performance further slow an already-draggy first act (the show as a whole, which ran three hours on opening night, needs tightening and a quicker pace). But Miller Brennan is a wonderfully witchy Ginger, a glamorous narcissist without a maternal bone in her body.
Gabriel Zenone plays the third point in a familial triangle as Sylvia St. Croix, the secretive talent agent who throws gasoline onto the flames of Tina’s ambition. Done up in the style of a mature Rosalind Russell (Zenone gets many of Tillman’s wittiest costumes), the actor 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.
Ruthless!, which collected a number of Carbonell Awards for two earlier South Florida productions, is a demonstrably successful show that would be even better with some strategic editing. Still, the new Actors’ Playhouse version is solidly entertaining -- particularly when star-in-the-making Dale is doing her thing.