This isn't to say that musicals are bad just that their producers think them corny and unsophisticated and insist upon reassuring us at every step that musicals are stupid and that we're whip-smart for knowing this.
This has given us the anti-musical, the song-and-dance show for people who hate song-and-dance shows: threadbare pastiches stretched over the bones of bad movie plots, then fattened up with songs about the ridiculousness of bursting into song and gags that were stale back in Young Frankenstein. And much comic homosexuality, of course the anti-musical's depiction of gays as pink and flaming as flamingos on fire is almost indistinguishable from the fag-bashing stereotypes minced out in the back seats of junior high buses.
Ruthless!, which dates back to the early 1990s and is now at the Barn Players in Mission, is an early example of the genre. It's a progenitor of our own Late Night Theatre and of off-Broadway hits such as Roadhouse and recent legit successes Spamalot! and The Producers. Like these shows, it trucks in strained cynicism and puns that would make Leslie Nielsen call for rewrites. It seeks to burlesque the crowd-pleasing aspects of traditional musicals while still singing and dancing and pleasing a crowd a tough trick. The anti-musical is to its traditional forebears what a nicotine patch is to a carton of Marlboro's: a trickling substitute for something you're trying to kick.
It works sometimes, especially when Ron Megee is involved.
And it's working in Mission, too, thanks to a pair of sharp comic performances that make up for the script's flipness.
The show targets The Bad Seed, that '50s melodrama about a murderously ambitious little girl. Just this summer, Late Night memorably spanked the same source material; with top-drawer gags and grown-man Megee pinafored and pigtailed as the killer, that Bad Seedling charmed. The casting in Ruthless! trumps Late Night's with a choice much more daring and funny than drag: Our bad seed here is hardly a sprout herself. Playing Tina, Daria LeGrand can't be out of elementary school, but she can put a gold-star on her résumé for one of the greatest entrances the KC stage has seen in recent years.
From the moment the show starts, we hear about Tina's talent, both from her mother (Carrie Lenahan, a delight) and her future manager, Sylvia St. Croix (Aaron Tracy, in a role that's a drag in every sense of the word). After a couple of minutes of typical anti-musical anti-banter "What kind of name is Denmark?" "Danish." "No thanks. Toast is fine." our star's appearance is anticipated no less than that of Godot himself.
LeGrand doesn't disappoint. Her Tina is an animatronic Precious Moments figurine, rosy-cheeked and piled high with curls. Her smile stretches into multiple time zones, and the frills and bustles of her dresses flare out beneath her like Rose Bowl floats. In these get-ups she sings and dances, taps out steps on the coffee table, does the splits and the Charleston and, from nowhere, suddenly bears a razzle-dazzle cane and top hat. She bellows "I Was Born to Entertain," which I found impossible to believe. This girl wasn't born she had to be hatched, probably from one of those Japanese labs.
When LeGrand's not on stage, we ache for her return. A dance number where she shadows another girl is more creepily adorable than her entrance. The twinkle she brings to the dark stuff (tying a jump-rope into a noose or dismissing a school-play rival as looking "too Jewish") makes iffy material seem great. Director Jay Coombes has turned LeGrand from a promising performer into a vicious JonBenet Ramsey.
As St. Croix, Aaron Tracy is curiously flat, stumbling over lines and looking generally glum. He is an electric performer and a first-class diva, but this part doesn't suit him. The songs aren't in his comfort range, and he isn't given much room to cut loose. God seems to have created Tracy for fetish-wear and bursting from cakes; surely someone can work in a glam-rock wedding number for him.
The songs are chatty, driven by keyboards, and pleasantly unmemorable. The set improves as the show goes on but is too shabbily appointed to capture the feeling of Tina's perfect suburban home. Better are Libby Bradley's costumes, which enchant (particularly the dresses). Still, here's hoping she pays some midrun attention to Larissa Klinger's lingerie, which, during one risqué number, labors heroically to keep us out of Oh! Calcutta! territory.
Even though Hurricane LeGrand sweeps away much of the show, Lenahan, as her mother, is also a treat, especially when not paired off with the unresponsive Tracy. She plays up her athletic angularity for great comic effect, her every movement a lightly absurd pose. For all the camp trappings of the part her Judy Denmark is, as written, yet another parody of '50s wifely perfection Lenahan treats the material with real feeling. This makes things funnier. The other characters wink at us, sing songs about how they hate musicals, and generally smash a fourth wall that we don't expect to be there anymore; Lenahan acts as if the play's silly story bears real weight, as if all of this is really happening. She makes clear the essential lesson that purveyors of these kind of shows need to learn: We like to believe and to feel, even in a comedy. Sometimes that fourth wall is load-bearing.