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On Theater: 'Ruthless' a murderous satiric delight in Laguna

It's not exactly true that "Ruthless," the current production at Laguna Beach's No Square Theatre, is the musical version of "The Bad Seed," but there are enough references to that play to cause eyebrow raising among the most casual theatergoers.

For instance, the child prodigy's surname is "Denmark," one letter removed from Rhoda's name, "Penmark." There's a radio announcer named "Max Anderson," "The Bad Seed" playwright's nickname, and mention of someone named Monica Breedlove, a character from "The Bad Seed." Also, there's a snippet of "Au Clair de la Lune," the tune Rhoda plunks out on the piano after her latest felony.

But playwright-lyricist Joel Paley had more targets than "The Bad Seed" on his mind when he created "Ruthless" some two decades ago. The story line shifts into "All About Eve"and "Gypsy" territory before the bodies finally stop falling. This is satire with a capital S.

The No Square production gleefully capitalizes on these and other circuitous plot points in a deliciously campy rendition marred only by its excessive volume. The Legion Hall is no concert venue, and actors really don't need amplification, especially those with voices as powerful as those of the "Ruthless" cast.

Otherwise, the No Square show is a consummate treat on both the musical and satirical levels. This is one show where presentational styling (directing everything out front) is forgivable, and director Joe Lauderdale misses no opportunity to stick it to established pieces of theater while bringing out the best — and most outrageous — in his performers.

Chief among these is Yvonne Browning as the little girl's mother, an ordinary housewife who discovers midway through the show that she's actually talented, the beneficiary of a showbiz gene from her unknown actress mother. This whisks her into Margo Channing territory as a Broadway star, and her rousing vocal chords provide appropriate emphasis.

As her equally talented daughter Tina, who'd do anything for a good part, young Charlotte Rubino reminds us what 9-year-old Frances Gumm must have sounded like before she changed her name to Judy Garland. The girl not only has a show-stopping voice, but she excels at the art of parody, a tribute no doubt to director Lauderdale's coaching.

The mysterious theatrical force known as Sylvia, who arrives unexpectedly to take control of Tina's life and career is played to the hilt in full drag by Paul Nygro, who also choreographs the show. Nygro — an Actor's Equity pro appearing under special dispensation from the union — usurps the stage with dynamic authority.

Particular plaudits must be reserved for Nancy Miller, who stepped into a major supporting role (actually two of them) that night. (Original cast member Lisa Mansour returns for the final performances.) True, Miller carries a cheat sheet, but her interpretations — of a grade school director and a mannish reporter — are largely spot on.

Playwright Paley even sticks it to the critics with the introduction of Browning's adoptive mother, a rapacious reviewer who hates musicals — so much so she even has an extended solo to that effect. Carol Robinson richly enacts this character, while Sam Ellison completes the cast as both Tina's first victim and, later, her mom's crafty assistant, appropriately named Eve.

The three-piece combo accompanying the show, Mike Repper, Kory MacKenzie and Skyler Garn, keeps things briskly up-tempo, if occasionally a bit overloud, although in fairness, I was seated virtually next to them.

If there's a major flaw, it's not in the presentation but the preparation. Playwright Paley has descended, quite literally, into overkill by writing past the logical climactic point. It's easy to forgive, however, when the performances are this accomplished.

"Ruthless" winds up its brief engagement this weekend, and should draw capacity crowds. Parking is a problem, however, so the theater suggests leaving your car a few blocks away at the high school.

If You Go

What: "Ruthless"

When: Closing performances Friday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m.

Where: No Square Theatre, Legion Hall, 384 Legion St.

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 715-0333

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