Midway through the second musical in my weekend theater lineup, matron character Lita Encore — a jaded performing arts critic — professes her distaste for the genre with her exhausted “I Hate Musicals.” Such meta moments make the world of comp tickets and delayed dinner plans all the more magical.
Lyricist Joel Paley knew all too well the critical backlash he was up against when he penned the words to Ruthless! The Musical. But even for straight play purists there is much to enjoy in this lively send-up that mocks old Hollywood institutions, soap opera twists and stage mom subculture. The story begins with the flittering, indulgent mother — one Mrs. Judy Denmark (Lori Lee Gordon) — who lives to manage her daughter Tina (Alissa Anderegg)’s dance card, centered around a school production of Pippi Longstocking. When aging diva Sylvia St. Croix shows up unannounced to steer the 8-year-old’s burgeoning career, little Tina takes a decidedly Bad Seed turn, and family secrets (as well as one drama teacher’s dashed ambition) run like the blood in the school’s cafetorium.
The cast is all-female (with the notable exception of a performer known only as Spanky, a makeup artist who takes it to the hilt as Sylvia), and the ladies click. From Linda M. Stiegler as a subtly derisive Lita, to Amberlee Peterson as a measured rival to Anderegg’s overly exuberant Tina, a production that could air on the side of excessive is kept in check. But the unexpected show-stealer — and the lady with the most stage time — is Gordon. She executes the peppy tone of a genuinely proud mama, but when called upon to see her daughter as the maniacal little starlet she truly is, Gordon delivers. While the script is outfitted with enough diversion to make an audience forgive more superficial performances, Gordon emerges as an engaging actress to follow. As a long-suffering mother hen trying to sort her own personal history, focus shifts to her solid performance, and Gordon balances the 1950s housewife archetype with that of a truly conflicted mother who realizes she hardly knows her spawn at all.
While this parody could have been saccharine to the core, a mix of cynicism and the occasional pinch of black humor complement the singing and dancing. The book’s 1992 publication is also apparent, with a more modern tone underscoring Judy’s home-bound career and drama instructor Miss Myrna’s troubled path to the classroom.
Venturing into the valley, an elaborate staging of Kiss Me Kate is making the confined Ojai Art Center Theatre much more expansive. Tracey Williams directs a dependable cast of actors and stage support who step away from the production of Shakespeare’s Turn of the Screw at hand to contend with equally dramatic backstage antics.
The Cole Porter play-within-a-play examines gender dynamics on two levels, with a traveling show bringing together two exes — struggling thespian Fred Graham and ex-Hollywood darling Lilli Vanessi — who engage in a toxic couples therapy mid-play. The pretense is amusing, and like Ruthless! there is enough in the switch between backstage and onstage dealings (with two gangsters running about for good measure) to amuse, but, again like Ruthless!, the production is laudable for the fact that it’s easy to see how it all could have gone so wrong. From Asunta Fleming’s pitch-perfect elocution as a 1930s starlet, to Scott White’s overbearing but endearing Fred Graham, to Darrienne Gross’s exuberant Lois Lane with the vocals to match, the cast holds up their end and stages a production so strong, Lita Encore might even be tempted to give it a positive review.
Ruthless! The Musical, presented by the Elite Theatre Company, runs through July 15 at the Petit Playhouse. 730 S. B St. Suite 20, Oxnard, 483-5118. Info: www.elitetheatre.org.