Dana Anderson Imbues Psychopathy with Chilling Charm
by Rachel Norby
“Ruthless! The Musical” tells the story of eight-year-old Tina Denmark, a disturbed little girl who is intent on getting the lead role in “Pippi,” the school play. The innocence of her sailor dress, the cheery songs, and the 50s suburban setting hide the greed and violence lurking just beneath the American surface—which soon burst out of psychopathic little Tina.
Tina (talented McKenzie Lopezlira) fearlessly marches onstage as if she owns it. Like Tina, Lopezlira “has been blessed with a great deal of talent.” She belts out every song with unbelievable force, winning us over.
Forceful Sylvia St. Croix (magnificent Ronnie Anderson) presides brilliantly over this 50s nightmare. Sylvia, a competitive stage mom, claims that Tina’s mother Judy (superb Sarah Elizabeth Williams) “has no talent whatsoever.” In fact, Judy is quite talented. Williams’ voice rings out clear as a bell, singing her way through phone calls and visits. She’s a charming presence.
Despite little Tina’s and impressive Sylvia’s efforts, the lead has gone to Louise Lerman, a decidedly untalented classmate. Being the ruthless diva that she is, Tina ensures that their “competition” is over quickly and decisively. As she sings, “I’ll do anything to play this part,” we know she means it—with a vengeance!
Caroline Schneider is hilarious as the uncoordinated and tone-deaf Louise Lerman. Though her character is untalented, Schneider shines. She returns in the second act to play Eve, a prim and obsequious, yet double-crossing assistant, recalling the movie All About Eve.
Though Tina’s homicidal tendencies are obvious to us, it takes a while for her mother to discover Tina’s crime, a plot line that could be sped up.
Laura Morgan perfectly channels the disgruntled failed-actress-turned-schoolteacher, Miss Thorn. We commiserate with her, as Morgan sings “Teaching Third Grade.” She laments, “I need something to fall back on, from what I’ve fallen back on.” Morgan’s touching songs bring vibrant life to her innermost thoughts. We laugh and cry with her.
Lisa Appleyard is fantastic as Judy’s mom, theater critic Lita Encore. Encore swaggers across the stage with confidence and criticism. Anyone would dread her visits in real life—but onstage, Appleyard finds the humor.
Following her stint at the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingénues, Tina returns supposedly reformed and penitent. The moralizing goes overboard here, but just when you think they’re really all going to live happily ever after, Tina’s criminal bent returns and all hell breaks loose.
“Ruthless!” has great music, excellent acting, and phenomenal singing. The farce and clever references to 50s movies and fashions make us think about the 50s repression and secrets. I thoroughly enjoyed this witty, funny, and wise musical reflection on American life.
“Ruthless” –book & lyrics by Joel Paley, music by Marvin Laird, directed by Dana Anderson, musical direction by Armando Fox, and choreography by Laura Morgan, at Altarena Playhouse, Alameda, California. Info: Altarena.org – to April 30, 2023.
Cast: Ronnie Anderson, Sarah Elizabeth Williams, McKenzie Lopezlira, Ginger Dreicer, Anna Joham, Caroline Schneider, and Lisa Appleyard.
Banner photo: Ronnie Anderson, McKenzie Lopezlira, Anna Joham. Photo Grizzly De Haro