Nothing’s more exciting in the world of theatre than the opening of a new venue. This past weekend saw the unveiling of Phoenix Theatre’s New Black Box Theatre, a smaller and more intimate setting that allows the company to compliment its regular seasonal productions with shows and newer, homegrown productions that might other wise had never found a forum.
With its newly constructed stadium style seating assuring a clear view from any position down onto the set, you’re struck with the same feeling you might feel as you enter a television studio, ready to watch the recording of a new sitcom, except there are no clunky TV cameras to block your view. The feeling of intimacy is so complete that if you happen to be seated in the first row, it may feel as though you’re actually sitting on the foot of the stage. Eye contact with principle players is all but guaranteed. One has to wonder who will be the most intimidated, the audience member or the actor.
The show that has opened the New Black Box is the 1992 off-Broadway musical comedy Ruthless! The Musical, a parody of all that is wrong with theatrical showbiz, written by those who know the industry inside and out and who obviously delighted in tearing it to shreds. They present show business as a disease.
“Talent,” booms a disembodied voice over the speakers, “Where does it come from?” The show proceeds to explore the question, revealing eight-year old Tina Denmark (Riley Glick) a talented young nightmare of a bratty girl who states that she’s already had a normal childhood. “Now it’s time to move on,” she tells her mother. Tina is a cross between Baby June from Gypsy – a role that, coincidentally, Riley played in a recent production at Phoenix – and a serial killer whose total lack of empathy allows her to literally hang her rival, thereby assuring Tina the lead in a school production of Pippi Longstocking. “You killed her for the part?” Tina’s horrified mother demands. “Not just any part,” Tina responds. “The lead.” Tina is so wrapped up with breaking into showbiz she even refers to God in a song as the casting agent in the sky.
As already stated, twelve-year old Riley has been seen several times in different valley theatres during the last few years, though this is perhaps the first time she has appeared on stage exclusively with adults, and she holds her own, effectively portraying the desires of a sinister bad seed by manipulating everyone around her with a smile, and occasionally a deadly shove.
All six characters are female, though the part of Sylvia St. Croix, a forceful and somewhat over-bearing theatrical agent, isplayed traditionally in drag, here brought to life with relish by Rusty Ferracane. Rusty makes one horrifically ugly woman, but his flamboyant gestures and over-the-top portrayal is exactly what’s required. He/she is an unstoppable force, and Rusty excels.
Local performer Johanna Carlisle is a hoot as Lita Encore, a woman who hates everything to do with showbiz; she’s a theatre critic. Her big number, I Hate Musicals, where she not only throws in an impersonation of Carol Channing and a plug for an on-coming Phoenix Theatre production of Pippin, stops the show. “I knew God would punish me for panning Fiddler,” she declares. Anyone who had trouble working out why the Jets and Sharks did a song and dance rather than an actual fight will undoubtedly relate.
Barbra McBain has the dual role of the resentful third-grade teacher Miss Myrna Thorn and New York Thesbian reporter Emily Brock, though it’s as the teacher, and director of the Pippi Longstocking production, where Barbra makes her mark. Part of that has to do with the writing. Emily Brock never feels quite right. The character doesn’t have a song and only seems to exist as a vehicle for a plot ‘reveal’ in the second half. As Miss Thorn, however, in a strange sorta/kinda way, the character actually rings true. “Life is a bitch,” the teacher declares, “And it starts in third grade.” I know a third grade teacher. She would agree.
Rebecca Duckworth also enjoys dual roles, the first being a roadblock to young Tina’s theatrical ambitions and the killer’s first victim, the second as Eve, the cloying assistant. Eve is reminiscent of a certain character from a certain Bette Davis movie classic. It’s only a matter of time when you know you’ll hear, “… It’s all about Ginger,” referring to the woman she’s assisting. “But when will it be all about Eve?” It’s a groaner, sure, but you can’t wait for it to be said, all the same. Rebecca attacks both roles with breathless gusto. She is so much fun to watch.
But the center of attention and the real star of the piece is Debby Rosenthal as Judy, a woman so devoted to the well being of her daughter she even refers to herself not by name but as simply Tina’s Mother. Debby plays Judy as Rita Rudner meets June Cleaver, and in the second half, while her daughter spends time at the Daisy Clover School for Psychopathic Ingenues, Judy suddenly grabs the super-trouper spotlight for herself and changes persona completely by becoming Ginger Del Marco, the toast of Broadway. Debby is spot on.
Michael Barnard directs the play as if the whole thing is one big cartoon; all characters behave and talk in exaggerated, non-stop, broad strokes, never pausing for a breath. Even Richard Farlow’s angular and mostly orange painted set design is a cartoon; it appears inspired by Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
And even though I’m sure a critic such as Lita Encore would give the whole affair a thumbs down, this first production at the New Black Box Theatre, I’m thrilled to say is a triumph. Long live Black Box.