Johnson's Arizona Onstage Productions mounts musicals, but not the sort that draw tourists to Broadway: no spectacle to distract you from a show's basic lack of content. Instead, Johnson favors small shows with some sort of message. Sometimes it's a serious statement about love and family, as in Falsettoland. Sometimes it's a challenging observation of the darker side of human nature, as in Assassins.
And this week, it's a twisted show-biz parody called Ruthless!
The 1992 show with music by Marvin Laird and book and lyrics by Joal Paley received the Outer Circle Critic's Award for Best Off-Broadway musical. It's a furious farce about a precociously talented girl, her initially reluctant stage mom and the dubiously sincere people in their orbit. It's The Bad Seed crossed with Gypsy and All About Eve, with a bit of Valley of the Dolls thrown in like a few handfuls of dirt.
"After Falsettoland and Assassins, I wanted to go with something more light and truly comical," says Johnson, who is directing Ruthless! "Although this does have morbid undertones. But that's the type of humor I like.
"People can laugh, and they can enjoy the music, which has everything from a Kurt Weill parody to a couple of sweet Rodgers and Hammerstein pieces to a take off on Stephen Sondheim. And there are so many twists in this show. It involves a lot of wigs. It's very John Waters, over the top in every way."
Johnson directed Ruthless! nine years ago in Texas, and he hasn't been able to get it out of his head. It went over surprisingly well with his audiences in San Antonio and Austin, but for different reasons depending on curtain time.
"The matinee crowd would get every single musical-theater reference," he says. "The late audiences might miss a lot of that, but they'd get the physical humor of it. They got the energy of it. There was just recently a production of this at the Edinburgh Festival, and the response was overwhelming--and this was an audience that may not have been familiar with the music and theater references."
If Johnson had any doubts that people would get Ruthless, they were dispelled when he had his students read it at the college-prep Basis School, where he chairs the fine-arts department. "They weren't familiar with hardly any of the films this parodies," he says, "but they loved the physical humor and the overdone style of the script."
So, Johnson is in the habit of handing the edgy, sometimes risqué scripts he favors to his innocent high school students? "Well, sometimes they get them in edited form," he says.
Ruthless! runs dangerously close to camp; author Paley has warned actors and directors not to wink at the audience, but to take their roles seriously, and let the madcap jokes speak for themselves.
"How far do we push these characters?" asks Johnson. "Pretty far. Act 2 is very fast paced, and the characters become less and less human and more and more cartoon."
Johnson has assembled a cast he doesn't hesitate to push. Tina, the murderous little star who seems about to be born in Act 1, is played by an authentic child, Jayln Wheatley. "I spotted her two years ago in a Kids Unlimited show," Johnson recalls. "They had like 250 kids onstage at one time in a Christmas show. She was playing an elf, and somebody stepped on her line, and it really pissed her off. For 15 minutes, I watched this really mad little elf throwing this attitude back on stage. I knew I'd found my Tina."
One odd bit of casting is using David Olsen as the enigmatic talent agent Sylvia St. Croix. Actually, there's a tradition of male casting in this role, and Johnson has had Olsen in mind for the part ever since the latter auditioned for Assassins last year.
"As this character, his manner and facial expressions and voice are very Rosalyn Russell," says Johnson. "He did a lot of character research in terms of her manner and inflection."
The cast also includes Stephanie Sikes, Diane Thomas, Katrina Haynes, Sarah Spiegleman and Shayna Vercillo.
Johnson's aversion to spectacle doesn't mean he's presenting Ruthless! on a bare stage, although that has been done in the past. "We have pretty simple sets," he says. "They're like on a 1970s TV sitcom, with lots of avocado greens and burnt oranges." Hey--the term is "harvest gold." I was there.
At any rate, says Johnson, "It's been a fun show to shop for. All those things you threw out years ago will be onstage."