'Ruthless!' NCTC musical comedy's dressed to kill

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday December 12, 2023
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Melissa Momboisse, J. Conrad Frank, and Mary Kalita in 'Ruthless!' (photo: Lois Tema)
Melissa Momboisse, J. Conrad Frank, and Mary Kalita in 'Ruthless!' (photo: Lois Tema)

Strike up the brash band!

Amidst this season of red and green comes a gag gift-wrapped in the loudest of yellows. When the curtain rises on NCTC's camptastic, "Ruthless," even the most jaded audience members will find their outlook involuntarily brightened by the production's screaming unmellow zonker of color-coordinated design.

Matt Owens' set, Wes Crain's costumes and Jenna Forder's props come at you like a sugar-and-acid squirt of lemonade in the eye.

The show's first act — which, in deference to hue, should perhaps be referred to as Act Number One — takes place in the suburban home of the Denmark family where several somethings are rotten.

Eight-year-old Tina (played by full-grown Melissa Momboisse) is prepared to murder her classmate Louise (Lucca Troutman) to win the lead role in her grammar school production of "Pippi in Tahiti." Her poison penned theater-critic grandma (Jacqueline de Muro) declares her hatred for musicals (Her big solo number is "I Hate Musicals"), and her sweet-as-pie homemaker mother Judy has a twitch beneath her docile crust that suggests a short-circuited Stepford wife.

As Judy, Mary Kalita makes her NCTC debut in a beautifully calibrated comedic turn that should be seen by everyone who does casting in the Bay Area.

Hayley Lovgren is also outstanding as incredulous third grade teacher Miss Thorn, an exasperated eye-rolling role that recalls peak Edie McClurg. (Wig designer Deon Christopher Glass tops the schoolmarm off with a honey of a beehive that does double-duty as her pencil case).

Mary Kalita, Melissa Momboisse and J. Conrad Frank in 'Ruthless!' (photo: Lois Tema)  

Also on hand in this collaged pastiche of stage mom and diva rival chestnuts ("Gypsy" meets "All About Eve" meets "The Bad Seed" meets "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?") is local actor and drag doyenne, J. Conrad Frank aka Katya Smirnoff-Skyy, as talent scout and agent Sylvia St. Croix.

Standing a head — sometimes two! — above his castmates in a series of stunningly tailored outfits, Frank gives the kind of tart, starchy turn for which he's beloved. But surrounded by an otherwise all-female cast, each member of which demonstrates her own expertise at exaggeration and caricature, his presence feels superfluous, and is even distracting at times.

"Ruthless!" is already a layer cake of spoofery. Why stick on a stratum of drag?

While a man has routinely been cast in the role of Sylvia since the Off-Broadway premiere production of "Ruthless!" in 1992, playwright and lyricist Joel Paley originally wrote the part for a woman (Though as director of that first production, he did cast a man).

Given the changing take on gender roles and "female impersonation" in America over the past 30-plus years, drag as a gag isn't particularly funny anymore. Particularly so in a showcase for female comedic talent like "Ruthless!"

Director Dyan McBride does a terrific job at choreographing the script's chaotic cascade of reveals and makes sure every performer gets big moments to shine. But one wishes she'd been willing to break with this particular casting tradition along with realizing that a child actor need not play Tina (That was also the precedent set by the premiere, in which both Britney Spears and Natalie Portman had their first professional jobs understudying the role).

Oh! I almost forgot: The show is a musical. The tunes, composed by Marvin Laird, are, well, forgettable. Honestly, I can't remember even a few notes of a single song. But no matter. What sticks is the schtick, the actresses and the spectacular design work.

This is the rare show from which you really can leave humming the scenery.

'Ruthless!,' through Jan 7. $40-$52. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. www.nctcsf.org

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