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Ben Nielsen

Beyond the shroud of humour, Ruthless! manages to shed light on the harsh realities of show business.

Madison Russo and Katrina Retallick. Image by Blueprint Studios.

‘Talent! Where does it come from?’ asks the fur-coated enigma, appearing from within a shroud of darkness. ‘Is it a product of environment, something you pick up off the street? Or is talent something you’re born with? I wonder…’

So Judy Denmark enters the stage, a contented housewife who is torn between giving her daughter Tina a normal life or the heading towards the limelight for which she so desperately yearns. With her mother remaining ambivalent, Tina instead finds creative nourishment from pushy talent agent Sylvia St. Croix. Despite this, her stage debut in the school production doesn’t go quite as planned. Tina’s road to fame is inevitable though – no matter who is hurt, or killed, in the process.                                   


Since it’s off-Broadway debut in 1992, Ruthless! has achieved cult status, but paradoxically remains relatively unknown. With references both in the score and script, the musical overtly parodies others like Mame and Gypsy. In doing so, it also ridicules itself. Joel Paley employs every cliché and hackneyed plot point, but this works in the narrative’s favour. Everything seems acceptable in this 1950s-style melodrama, and somehow, Ruthless! seems outrageously fresh.

Paley has made revisions specifically for this production, but his book remains as sharp as ever. While his observations are sometimes cruel and sardonic, Paley’s writing is quick and witty: ‘Show people are doomed; doomed to a lifestyle of booze and pills and heavy meals late at night.’

Beyond the shroud of humour, Ruthless! manages to shed light on the harsh realities of show business: the competiveness, the superficiality, the cost of celebrity, and the power of criticism. The relationship between old and young seems to be of constant fascination to Paley, more so with the almost adulterous intrusion of show business.

The plot is generally predictable, until the twists of the final scene. It’s not the narrative that remains with the audience though, but Marvin Laird’s score. The musical content is far from innovative, yet Laird creates a comforting familiarity as he pays homage to a golden era of Broadway. This is exemplified by ‘Born to entertain’, ‘I hate musicals’, and Lucy Durack’s pre-recorded cameo in ‘Unkie’s Muncle’. The score peaks with the titular song, the syncopated melody of ‘Ruthless’ indelibly etched in the mind long after the house lights are lifted.

Christopher Horsey’s fabulously gaudy choreography came to full fruition in the full-ensemble finale, and is matched by a dynamic lighting design. The production was sadly disappointed by unbalanced and inaudible sound. The sloppiness of this operation became more apparent throughout the performance.

In its Australian premiere, the production features an enviable cast including Meredith O’Reilly, Caitlin Berry and Margi De Ferranti. The presence of these leading ladies destines the show for success, and undoubtedly assists at the box office.

Amid the marquee of talent, Katrina Retallick shines with impeccable vocals and comic ability in the role of Judy. Geraldine Turner is scathing as theatre critic Lita Encore, but still received cheers and applause when she made her grand entrance. Ultimately, the spotlight is hard to steal from Madison Russo as the precocious and manipulative Tina. Despite her youth, Russo manages to belt out the highest notes, dance through a catalogue of genres, and also act with conviction. Bravo.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5


A Theatre Division production
Book and Lyrics by Joel Paley
Music by Marvin Laird
Directed by Lisa Freshwater
Set and Costume Design: Mason Browne
Lighting Design: Martin Kinnane
Performed by Kartrina Retallick, Margi de Ferranti, Meredith O’Reilly, Caitlin Berry, Jade Gillis, Madison Russo and Geraldine Turner

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Chippendale
19 June – 5 July

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Ben Nielsen is a Sydney-based writer and broadcaster. He regularly contributes to Limelight magazine and ArtsHub, and has also written for News Corp Adelaide and SALife Publications. Follow @benjnielsen