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Theater review: Campy musical mixes dark humor and murderous deeds

"Ruthless" runs through Jan. 26 at the Underground Theater. (Submitted photo)

Paying homage to such classic musicals as "Gypsy" and "Mame" and theatrical soap operas "All About Eve," and even "Valley of the Dolls," the Underground Theater's production of the musical comedy "Ruthless" drew lots of laughs from the opening night audience.

The show succeeds on its satirical script and lyrics, providing ample opportunities for actors to overact and "chew the set" at will. The score, however, is eminently forgettable without a single standout song for the audience to hum on their way out.

Its main source material is from "The Bad Seed," the 1950s melodramatic stage play and film about an adorable but murderous 8-year-old girl, Tina Denmark (Sofia Salmela).

Salmela shines, tap dancing in on her first entrance, noting how she is "Born to Entertain," singing, "When I strut my stuff, you'll be on your feet! I was born to sing and dance!" A pint-sized little delight, Salmela is all curls, curtsies and pig-tailed cuteness — until she instantly turns on her inner psychopath.

While consistent with the character and as written in the script, it feels somehow disconcerting in a musical comedy, however, to have a young child be a mini-murderess who spouts foul obscenities.

As Judy Denmark, Tina's mother, Jennie Ross gives just the right "Leave it to Beaver" June Cleaver spin, identifying herself as just "Tina's mother." Ross has perfect comic timing and the ditzy blonde qualities of Audrey in "Little Shop of Horrors."

Playing Lita Encore, a drama critic and Tina's grandmother, Sara Marie Sorenson is the strongest singer of the company. Sorenson takes over the stage with "I Hate Musicals," belting, "I've been a theatre critic for a hundred years, and it's always the same ... someone sings a song (Like this!) That doesn't make sense!"

Hilarious as a chain smoking, beleaguered teacher, Cathy Berggren laments how tough life is in "Teaching Third Grade." As talent agent Sylvia St. Croix, Emily Lanik Parr is delightfully over-the-top, giving a Cruella De Ville edge to her performance.

The show's acting is consistently top-notch; some of the singing, however, is occasionally strained and off pitch. The nearly unsingable score doesn't do the actors any favors.

Really two different shows in Act I and II, most of the actors get to show different sides of their "alter ego" characters with some clever plot twists thrown in.

Director Rob Hadaway keeps the show's pacing moving at a fast clip, making maximum use of the Underground's small acting area. He demonstrates a strong sense of the source material and satirical targets.

Cheryl Skafte's costumes provide a colorful potpourri of classic sheaths, '50s full-skirted floral "day" dresses, and glitz and glamor with dazzling outfits "spilling over" with sequins and fur galore.

Any show that cleverly makes fun of theater critics (gasp!), and musicals (blasphemous!) is entertaining for most audiences.

The production's ads, however, show an Annie-like outfit making it seem like this could be a children's show (if you miss the ghosted shadow of the girl with a knife in her hand, that is). Parents should not consider this as a show they should bring their impressionable children to see.

Sheryl Jensen is a Duluth freelance writer and theater critic.

IF YOU GO

What: "Ruthless," a musical

When: Jan. 10-26, Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Underground Theater, 506 W. Michigan St.

Cost: $20

Online: www.duluthplayhouse.org

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