There's an old showbiz adage for actors that working with children is dangerous because they will invariably upstage you.
But in "Ruthless! The Musical" — an over-the-top parody of female-centric melodramas such as "All About Eve" and "Valley of the Dolls" — the adult actors hold their own with the young performer at the center of the tale.
Those grownups have to work hard, though, to keep up with bright-as-a-button Jasmine Forsberg, who plays little Tina Denmark, a precocious tot who wants to be Pippi Longstocking in the school play and will do anything — emphasis on anything — to land the part.
If you just heard an old soap-opera organ belt out the familiar minor chords that signal danger — dum, dum, dummmm — you have a sense of the show's tone.
Winter Park Playhouse has combined a cast of Orlando theater veterans with fantastic costumes, a more-elaborate set than usual for the Playhouse stage and clever musical cues from pianist Chris Leavy and percussionist Sam Forrest to give this silly story of ambition and betrayal more than its share of genuine laughs.
Housewife Judy Denmark (Heather Alexander) has a lot on her plate: Her husband is perpetually absent, her mother (blustery Cami Miller) is an abrasive theater critic, but most pressing is her daughter Tina's obsessive ambition on being a star and the appearance of a mysterious woman with the unlikely name of Sylvia St. Croix, who wants to be her manager.
The campy characters, plot twists, even some of the lines poke fun at "Gypsy," "Mommie Dearest" and the like. It's hard to keep a show running at such a torrid pitch from eventually burning out, though, and "Ruthless!" begins to wilt even before its dragged-out climactic finale.
It doesn't help that writer Joel Paley likes to repeat jokes until their comic appeal diminishes. But to the credit of the pros in the cast, the show retains its momentum longer than you might think such piffle would.
Alexander is at the center of the plot and is sweetly ditzy with a simple little laugh, as she mistakes the sound of the doorbell for the ring of the telephone. Director Roy Alan has let her be upstaged by the more eccentric characters around her.
Kevin Kelly, in drag, makes Sylvia a fabulous, dahling, cross between Bette Davis and Norma Desmond. He cleverly plays it straight — no nudge, wink to the audience — and in doing so becomes even more fun to watch. Every widening of his eyes, extravagant gesture with his hands shows that boy, is he ready for his closeup.
Janine Klein, with frizzed-out, pencil-strewn hair, is a scene-stealer as a burnt-out schoolteacher swigging bourbon.
And strong-voiced Forsberg switches comically and convincingly from a Shirley Temple-wannabe to "The Bad Seed." When her eyes narrow and her voice deepens, beware that murderous moppet.
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•What: 'Ruthless! The Musical'
•Length: 2:30, including intermission
•Where: Winter Park Playhouse, 711-C Orange Ave., Winter Park
•When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. on two Sundays, Oct. 16 and 23, as well as Thursday, Oct. 27; through Oct. 29
•Tickets: $38; $35 seniors; $20 students and entertainment-industry professionals
•Call: 407-645-0145Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times