It's with a healthy sense of irony that Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre — where ambitious child actors and vicarious stage parents are bread and butter — is staging in its cozy cabaret theater what's become a rather popular production of “Ruthless! The Musical,” a campy off-Broadway spoof of overeager moppet actors and evil-kiddie thrillers like “The Bad Seed.”
The general conceit: Tina Denmark is a third-grader so intent on landing the lead in the school play, “Pippi in Tahiti,” that she is willing to kill for it. And it seems both star ambition and dastardly duplicity run in the family.
“Ruthless!” is either a homage to or a heavy cribbing from the work of retro camp darling Charles Busch (“Psycho Beach Party”). However, the Scottsdale production, directed by Toni Fioramonti, ratchets down the darker side of the satire — perhaps for fear of turning off its audience.
But that's of little consequence when the young actresses playing li'l Tina (this company is big on rotating multiple casts) happen to be so darn pitch-perfect. The role comes in two distinct flavors: Shayna Moellenberg, 11, affects a helium Kewpie squeal for optimum cutesycutsie effect; on opposing nights, Desiree Vaughan, 12, is a more subtle starlet, concealing a deliciously withering glare underneath her phony blonde ringlets.
The rest of the cast is near-uniformly wonderful — Patrick Salazar's self-conscious drag queen preening tends toward the obnoxious — and the laughs come steady despite a longish second act and a few too many unnecessary numbers.
It's not exactly a show to which you should take the li'l ingenue in your family (what if she — gadzooks! — thinks it's an instructional how-to?), but it is a sharp bit of satire from a theater that's apparently comfortable with being in on the joke.
>> “Ruthless” runs through May 27 at Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre's Actor's Café, 4720 N. Scottsdale Road. $20-$25. (480) 483-1664 or desertstages.com.