OGDEN — This is not your grandmother’s “Ruthless.”
So says playwright Joel Paley, who with Marvin Laird created the play “Ruthless! The Musical” back in 1992. Paley wrote the book and lyrics and Laird wrote the music for the Off-Broadway premiere, and over the years it has been produced by numerous professional and regional theater companies around the world.
But it’s fair to say that the “Ruthless” opening Friday, Nov. 9, in the Browning Center’s Eccles Theater at Weber State University is significantly different — new and improved, if you will. And the musical theater program at the little old Ogden school gets to take the very first crack at it.
Andrew Barratt Lewis, an assistant professor of theater and musical theater at Weber, directs the show. And what’s unique about this production is that Lewis has been in contact with Paley during the preparation for the WSU performances. The musical was recently done in London’s West End, and it was “completely revamped” for that run, according to Lewis. What’s more, following the London shows Paley made additional tweaks to the script — which he then provided to WSU.
“That’s been really exciting,” Lewis said. “We got the script from the licensing company, but Joel has sent us a new script and score with extra songs. So we are actually doing the newest production, and we are the first company in the United States to do it.”
Lewis said the fluidity of the situation has given his students a little real-world theater experience — they received the script and got a chance to familiarize themselves with it, only to arrive at rehearsals and learn it had been changed.
“I would say that the show we’ll be producing is significantly different than what is currently in print,” Lewis said. “There’s been some back and forth with the playwright, and we’re really kind of the guinea pigs for what the show will be going forward.”
“Ruthless” tells the story of an 8-year-old who doesn’t get cast as the lead in the school play. She then goes to some extreme lengths to get the part.
“It’s this idea of a too-perfect little girl who is actually doing some nefarious things behind the scenes,” Lewis said. “That, combined with the sort of ‘Gypsy’-stage-mom character.”
The musical features just seven cast members. All are musical theater majors, although they represent a broad cross-section of the student experience.
“We run from first-semester freshmen in the play to folks graduating this year, and everywhere in between,” Lewis said. “And with only seven characters, they have a lot of time on stage to feel what it’s like to carry a show.”
The Weber production features musical direction by Kenneth Plain. The cast includes Max Gilchrist, Katelynn Ostler, Landry Thomas, Carly Barlow, McKenna Tedrick and Cassidy Wixon.
Lewis says Paley’s latest tweaks have made the play even funnier, if that’s possible. The comic timing has been tightened up, and some of the jokes have been expanded.
It also features additional songs. And because it’s a parody of a musical, Lewis suspects audience members will feel like they recognize the tunes in the show.
Lewis calls the musical a “hilarious, biting, sarcastic, dark comedy about theater people.” He also says it’s rather absurd and over-the-top. With a certain amount of adult language and content, “Ruthless! The Musical” is being billed as suitable for ages 16 and older.
The play was chosen before Lewis was hired at Weber State, and the director says he’s glad it was selected.
“I didn’t know the show incredibly well when I was hired, but I’m grateful we’re doing it,” he said. “It suits our students very well, and it’s the type of show I like to work on — this kind of very biting comedy.”
Lewis graduated from the WSU musical theater program a decade ago. He says former WSU musical theater guru Jim Christian, who retired in 2016, was one of his mentors. Lewis looks forward to continuing what Christian built through the program.
“He’s amazing and quite the icon in musical theater,” Lewis said of Christian. “Obviously I want to preserve the tradition of amazing musical theater that Jim did here for 30 years, that weighs on you. But at the same time, you just have to say ‘This is what we’re going to do,’ and present the best show we can.”