Something is happening in Sydney musical theatre. 2014 is a moment, a movement, for the genre: Hayes Theatre Co dipped a toe in a pool of still water and rippling outward are its effects; with a home for musicals and cabaret in Potts Point receiving critical acclaim and inspiring countless artists, shows are popping up everywhere.
AIM alumni launched their own theatre and made themselves a home in Australia Hall. Darlinghurst Theatre Co opened a musical right when the Hayes debuted with their Sweet Charity, and the Hayes even opened a new independent musical. Squabbalogic are finally taking one of their shows on the road.
And now we have The Theatre Division. Formed by producers Lisa Freshwater and Alistair Thompson, their vision is straightforward: “to produce works that we love, shows that have heart, are theatrically challenging and tell brave stories with universal appeal.”
Ruthless!, on the surface, isn’t a brave story – but actually it is. A loving parody of a mashup of things, from Gypsy to All About Eve via The Women, the truth remains that producing an all-female anything is a risk (what will male audience members think?!) Beyond that, though, this is a small show that caused a small storm off-Broadway in the way cult hits do, but never ventured further; it’s not necessarily a work that many people here would be familiar with. What’s brave is to discount these concerns and stage it anyway, this unapologetic show about women, this show that’s both sharp and broad in its humour, sometimes both at once.
This is one of the most witty shows you’re likely to see in Sydney this year and that’s largely in the throwaway lines, a subtlety in this very un-subtle show. Margi de Ferranti is brilliant at this, at letting her moments of brilliance be small and therefore funnier.
The show is about little Tina Denmark (Madison Russo) a precocious little triple-threat and her contented housewife mother. Their lives are thrown into a high-camp tailspin when suddenly Tina gets herself a manager Sylvia St Croix (Meredith O’Reilly), and tries out for the lead in the school play. One things lead to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, and suddenly there’s death and destruction and belting all over the place. Fame infects the mother daughter, the school teacher, the agent, the grandmother (a theatre critic who, metatextually, hates musicals), and the story is far too fun to spoil, but the stakes get higher and higher and higher and it’s an absolute treasure.
This production is a roaring success and so much of that lies in its casting, this cast of powerful women with inimitable talent. Geraldine Turner is more or less a legend of Australian musical theatre, and to see her back in a musical show is to see her stage presence calmly, assuredly draw all the attention in the room to her and only her; that rare gift. Meredith O’Reilly brings the real world into the pretty 50s housewife world of Tina and her mother Judy, and she does it with a snappy, eye-rolling, sincerely funny flair. Caitlin Berry manages to play both a pre-adolescent child and a ladder-climbing personal assistant, and there’s an intelligence to her comedy that is refreshing and appealing; Berry is a star patiently waiting to happen.
The three jewels in the Ruthless crown, though, are three very different and very strong performers. The first is little Madison Russo as Tina Denmark, a scarily talented young girl who holds her own against some incredible women; she acts fearlessly and sings with that same seeming abandon, but always with exceptional technique.
The second is Margi de Ferranti, who played in the last musical in the Reginald, too, playing Carrie White’s mother in Squabbalogic’s Carrie. A musical theatre veteran possibly best known for Mamma Mia, her appearances on the independent stage in the past twelve months have all been exciting, welcome, and wonderful. It’s like de Ferranti has found her joy; she plays her two roles in Ruthless! embracing the absurdity of both; there’s a winning sense of playfulness underneath her performance.
Of course, at the heart of this show is mother Judy Denmark, played by Katrina Retallick. This show was produced by Theatre Division for Retallick, following her splashy role in last year’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Retallick is very, very good at complicated neurosis and very, very good at comedy; on top of all of that, she’s also an excellent vocalist. She understands phrasing, timing, and has the kind of tone you remember; there is no other Katrina Retallick, just like there is no other Kelli O’Hara, but you want to hear her keep singing always, too.
Ruthless! has been extended through to July 12th, and let’s hope that The Theatre Division are here to stay: one show in, and they’re already really good at this.