‘Sharply cast production’ showcases excellent talent in Rolando District theater’s season-closer

By Anne Marie Welsh | 5:03 p.m. July 18, 2016 | Updated, 5:42 p.m., San Diego Union Tribune

Moxie Theatre is mixing it up this summer, closing its 11th season with a high-spirited staging of the high camp showbiz spoof “Ruthless!”

Co-directed by Moxie’s Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg and the redoubtable Leigh Scarritt, the sharply cast production showcases a really, truly fabulous drag performance by David McBean as the mad, mysterious Sylvia St. Croix, mentor to a homicidally ambitious 8-year old would-be star, Tina Denmark.

The 1992 show with book and lyrics by Joel Paley and music by Marvin Laird transposes the evil child meme from “The Bad Seed” and the malicious assistant plot from “All About Eve” to the world of elementary school theatrics. In some circles, it’s earned a cult following, and an updated version has been running for a year at a tiny off-Broadway theater in New York.

Trimmed by 15 or 20 minutes and performed without intermission, the one-liners, theater in-jokes and satiric barbs at the bad old days of Andrew Lloyd Webber-style poperettas might help “Ruthless!” maintain the ridiculous comic sparkle that currently dims before the close.

At Saturday’s Moxie opening, a little sweetheart of an actor named Madison O’Donovan — not yet a second-grader — belted her half-dozen songs and delivered Tina’s most malicious lines with deadpan insouciance. “I asked politely … I said please,” she chirps as her motive for killing the girl who wouldn’t surrender her lead role in “Pippi in Tahiti.” And here’s Tina when her mother Judy questions her lack of emotion over her rival’s “accidental” death by jump rope: “Why should I cry? I didn’t get killed.”

Tina’s take-no-prisoners ambition is inherited — even if, in the first act, that nasty gene seems to have skipped a generation. Her mother Judy is a Donna Reed housewife happy to support her child’s talent until she figures the kid out — and becomes, in Act Two, a pushy Broadway star herself. As Judy, Eileen Bowman’s crack comic timing and a running gag involving high heels elicit plenty of laughs. Add her rangy singing, and Bowman’s Judy almost outshines McBean’s Sylvia.

But Sylvia gets the show’s Mama Rose number (“Gypsy” references here), and McBean, looking gorgeous and obsessed, sings “I Want the Girl” with such throaty mock fervor you feel for her.

Co-director Scarritt’s well-drilled musical theater students play the kids and willing stagehands for the bits of show-within-a-show, “Pippi in Tahiti.” And as their third grade teacher Miss Thorn, Jeannine Marquie sustains the tone of harebrained hysteria.

Also on hand are Tina’s (adopted) grandmother Lita Encore, a vicious theater critic whose reviews have the power to kill not just shows, but performers. Real-life theater critic Pat Launer plays that part with gusto, though as a warm-hearted yenta not a nasty reviewer from hell. In her “I Hate Musicals” numbers, she gets to speak-sing some of Paley’s better lyrics and share her over-the-top fun with them.

As manic Eve Allbout, Cashae Monya gets the right lunatic laughs, while Shirley Johnston plays a theater writer determined to solve the mystery of how housewife Judy Denmark became the Tony-winning Ginger DeMarco.

On the design side, Missy Bradstreet’s big-hair wigs deserve special mention as well as the spooky mock-noir effects in David Scott’s sound score.

Welsh is a freelance writer.