Styling Camp in the Musical “Ruthless!”

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Rita McKenzie as Lita Encore and Kim Maresca as Judy Denmark in Ruthless! Photos by Carol Rosegg.

Five sentences into Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on Camp” is arguably the most all-encompassing and succinct definition of the term:

…the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.

Sontag wrote that essay in 1964, and in it, of course, she considered much more, including three paragraphs that tie homosexuality to camp in all of its coded and kaleidoscopic glory. Also in 1964, the Supreme Court examined the question of what is obscene in Jacobellis v. Ohio, for which Associate Justice Potter Stewart memorably concurred “I know it when I see it.” What is camp? You know it when you see it.

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Rita McKenzie as Lita Encore and Kim Maresca as Judy Denmark in Ruthless! Photos by Carol Rosegg.
Rita McKenzie as Lita Encore and Kim Maresca as Judy Denmark in Ruthless! Photos: Carol Rosegg.

And when you see the 1992 Joel Paley-Marvin Laird musical Ruthless!now in revival at Off-Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theatre — you know it’s camp. It’s a multi-mirrored fun-house of camp, plus satire, and even if a few cultural references soar over your head, you know what’s going on for the actors do make it so — from too-long, winking pauses to wallowing in wordplay like dirty birds in a bath.

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Ruthless! introduces us to 8-year-old Tina Denmark (Tori Murray), a pint-sized stage diva who, metaphorically speaking, fell off a bus-and-truck tour of Gypsy and landed in a community theater take on The Bad Seed. Tina’s dying to play the lead in Pippi in Tahiti (as in Longstocking), although maybe dying is the incorrect verb. For Tina’s wiling to do whatever it takes, murder included, to get her way. As a third-grade diva would.

Tina’s mother Judy (Kim Maresca) — her bouffant marking her a wife from Stepford — has a secret in her past, and there’s an opportunistic agent, Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land), who knows what that secret is. And so with little sprout Tina soon in full Bad Seed-iness, the action soon involves Pippi in Tahiti‘s director-teacher, Myra Thorn (Andrea McCullough), and a fellow sprout, Louise (Tracy Jai Thorne), who is standing in Tina’s way.

Enter Judy’s mother — Tina’s grandmother — Lita Encore (Rita McKenzie). a theatre critic who is to the world of camp what Taran Killam’s Jebediah Atkinson is to Saturday Night Live:

If you’re saying to yourself, “Where have I heard that voice before?,” good for you. For this is the very same Rita McKenzie who’s performed Ethel Merman’s Broadway — a warmhearted tribute to the Broadway icon — for more than 20 years. So yes, there’s a Merman-y voice seasoning Lita Encore, but underneath it all is McKenzie herself, who proved irrepressible and charismatic in our brief Q&A with her.

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For tickets to Ruthless!, click here.

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And now, 5 questions Rita McKenzie has never been asked:

Maresca, Peter Land and McKenzie.
Maresca, Peter Land and McKenzie.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“How tired are you of sounding like Ethel Merman?”

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Have you killed anyone with your vibrato?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Have you ever inhaled a fly while singing?”

If you were Lita Encore in real life, how would review your performance in Ruthless!? And would she like the song “I Hate Musicals” or would she, in fact, totally hate it?
“Too loud! Who does she think she is, Tyne Daly?” She’d love to hate the song.

How did you first get involved with Ruthless!? Thinking about the show as well as your long and amazing relationship with all things Ethel Merman, what do you think of “camp” these days? In other words, do you think your Merman work is “camp” to some folks but more nostalgia or “tribute” to others? For you, personally, what is “camp”?
Joel Paley thought it would be fun to have an Ethel Merman sound-alike play the role. What’s “Camp?” There’s nothing campy about my Ethel work. No one has ever mentioned that. “Camp” is what a drag queen does when he can’t really act. He over-exaggerates everything (with a vaguely sexual overtone).

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Bonus question:

Name three roles in the musical theater that you know you would most likely never be cast to play, but which you also know you would totally nail on stage if given the chance to play the role. Please rank these in order of “Goddamn it, I should play this role!”
Miguel De Cervantes (I started my career playing Franz Shubert in Blossom Time in an all-girl high school!), Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (because no one has ever asked me to play it). And Simba in The Lion King.