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Right & Wrong

Ruthless! in Germantown; Miss Saigon at Playhouse.


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I've said it before: Joal Paley and Marvin Laird's musical Ruthless! is wrong in every way a musical can be wrong. And, at the same time, it's so very right.

I especially recommended the show to anyone who has ever confessed (as does one of the show's characters), "I hate musicals." On the other hand, an encyclopedic knowledge of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Tina Louise will certainly improve the viewing experience. Ruthless! is a mad mash-up of characters and plot elements from All About Eve, The Bad Seed, Mommie Dearest, and The Stepford Wives and pays homage to Gypsy while thumbing its nose at A Chorus Line and Annie.

Ruthless! tells the woeful tale of talent, yearning, and the cold-blooded murder of an 8-year-old actress as committed by 8-year-old Tina Denmark, an adorable child who'll do anything to play (insert the sound of thunder here) "The LEAD!"

Director Michael Duggan has staged Ruthless! before. His Circuit Playhouse production was a 2002 highlight. This latest incarnation at Germantown Community Theatre, featuring the talents of Kim Justis, Wesley Barnes, Renee Davis Brame, and young Sydney Bell as Tina, can be gut-busting funny, but it only occasionally reaches (or screeches) the same delirious high notes.

Ruthless! is a big, campy cartoon, and Duggan, who also staged an excellent local production of Zombie Prom, knows exactly what he's doing with the tricky "so bad it's swell" material. So does his seasoned cast, although they collectively tend to lose their grip on the show's silly melodrama in all the slapstick, double-takes, and sight gags.

In the Crawford role, Barnes demonstrates once again why, in and out of heels, he's regarded as one of this region's finest young actors. That said, he's too young for the role. It's a good attempt, but in being both young and too good an actor, he sometimes misses some delicious opportunities to be garish and wrong. Brame is a hoot as Eve, the show's Bette Davis stand-in. You might even say it's all about her.

Through June 2nd

However much Playhouse on the Square is paying lighting designer John Horan, it's not nearly enough. His designs are gorgeous. They illuminate shows from every angle, in every conceivable sense of the words "illuminate" and "angle." His plot for the drama God of Carnage made me want to stand up and applaud completely inappropriate moments. And it's fair to say that his lighting has kept my butt seated and my eyes focused on the stage when, mentally or physically, I've felt inclined to wander. Such was the case with Miss Saigon, a fantastic production of a show I've never liked.

Miss Saigon is a shamelessly derivative romance, borrowing heavily from Puccini's Madame Butterfly and drunk under the lurid influence of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. The first half of the sung-through script produces only a few memorable melodies, while the latter half makes one wonder if even a full grown man might be power-balladed to death.

Offensive where it's not outright laughable, Miss Saigon has two things going for it: the sensational spectacle of life in a war zone and the urgency and desperation of the Saigon evacuation. Take those things away, and you're left with a "star-crossed," "love at first trick," "hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold" story effectively transforming 50,000 dead Americans and two million dead Vietnamese into a box-office gold mine.

Miss Saigon positions itself as a historically conscious fiction, but the word "exploitive" feels more appropriate. Vietnam is just another backdrop. It could as well have been the American Revolution or Troy. The "Children of the Dust" — half-American, half-Vietnamese kids who were left in Vietnam after the U.S. withdrew from the conflict — exist only as an emotionally loaded plot device.

Now that you know my bias, I will tell you I couldn't take my eyes off director Jordan Nichols' emotionally oversized but otherwise scaled-down take on one of the original megamusicals. At the moment, I'm blaming John Horan, who, at the very least, needs to pick up an Ostrander Award for his work on this one.

Through June 10th


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