Some people will stop at nothing to get what they want. Among them is eight-year-old Tina Denmark (played by Taliah King) who in 1950s New York City dreams of making it big in show business - today Pippi Longstocking in the school play, Pippi in Tahiti, tomorrow the world. Her mother, Judy (Kristen Zotti) and manager, Sylvia St Croix (Leon Anderson) encourage her ambitions.
But Tina's plans go awry when she is not cast in the lead role of Pippi, passed over for a talentless girl, Louise (Eryn Marshall) who is got the part because of her parents' money and influence It isn't long before Tina's rival vanishes. And there are plenty more complications and revelations to come as the story unfolds.
Director Glenn Braithwaite says Ruthless! the Musical, which premiered off-Broadway in 1992, has a plot largely based on the book, play and movie The Bad Seed, about a child who''s a ruthless murderer.
"It's combined with the musicals Gypsy and Mame and the movies All About Eve and The Women."
Braithwaite is directing the Canberra premiere of the campy and darkly comic musical in a production performed by the Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art's Certificate IV in Musical Theatre students. It's the major presentation at the end of their six-month course.
"The six actors play eight characters," Braithwaite says. Ruthless! was chosen because its all-female cast most closely matched the composition of the class (five females, one male). Playing Judy is Kristen Zotti, a 29-year-old freelance publicist who is fulfilling a longtime ambition.
"I was a musician in high school; I always got delegated to the pit," she says.
But she always dreamed on being on stage so she decided to ease her workload a little and undertake the CADA course, culminating in what she calls "a very over-the-top musical".
She hadn't heard of the show before but says she went to London during the course, "I saw Ruthless on the West End - it's funny."
Now, she wants to try out for shows in the Canberra musical theatre world.
Taliah King, 18, attended the Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts so she was, in her words, "brought up in a high school world of drama and singing".
That might have stood her in good stead to play the role of a child who, in her words, "glorifies the idea of performing" and will do anything to get on stage.
The Indigeneous ANU psychology student does a lot of Aboriginal contemporary dance and says she had three months to learn a new skill, tap dancing, for her role as Tina.
"It was very. very challenging - singing and dancing tap at the same time is very intense."
In the original production, the creative team was so impressed by one man who auditioned they cast him as Sylvia. In the script, it says any of the characters can be played by a male actor, as long as they play the character as female, Braithwaite says. The gender-bender here is Keelan Mast, 18, who plays snooping journalist Miss Block and failed actress and third-grade teacher Miss Thorn, director of the Pippi production.
Mast began acting in shows in his home town of Warrnambool in Victoria at the age of four as a pixie in A Midsummer Night's Dream, appearing in 23 productions there so far. He hopes to study theatre in Melbourne next year.
Performing two roles in drag has been "a challenge", he says: although he's dressed up as Wonder Woman for costume parties, this was something quite different.
"I had to learn to become a woman. I thought I'd be able to play it up as a woman, but the director wants me to play it seriously. He doesn't want people to laugh at me, but with me."
Among the challenges he's faced: developing two separate and convincing voices for his charactera and learning to walk convincingly in women's shoes - the latter, in particular, has not been easy.
"The girls were telling me, 'You're walking like a man in high heels."
Ruthless! The Musical. Music by Martin Laird. Book and lyrics by Joe Paley. Directed by Glenn Braithwaite. Musical director: Tracy Bourne. Choreographer: Debbie Trotter Wharton. Suitable for ages 12+. Canberra Academy of Dramatic Art. CADA Studio, 11 Whyalla Street, Fyshwick. July 12 to 13 and 18 to 20 at 7.30pm, July 21 at 5pm. Bookings: stagecenta.com.
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