The Road to Ruin
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
September 19, 2008
American parents of the 1920s and 1930s worried that their children would slip into all kinds of trouble: sex, delinquency, drug addiction, drinking, even gum chewing. And an industry of "moral-warning" films, like Cocaine Fiends, The Devil's Weed, and The Road to Ruin, sprung up to expose these dangers, instruct parents on how to protect their children—and show scenes notably more risque than might have been shown in mainstream movies of the time. Shown in traveling tents on the outskirts of small towns, these movies were often accompanied by a lecture and a pamphlet to take away—a full evening of entertainment and shock.
This musical version of The Road to Ruin, written and scored by William Zeffiro, is trying to spoof one of these evenings, from its frame-setting opening in a tent to its piously foreboding narrator, from its innocent beginnings as good girl Sally Canfield is offered a stick of gum to its tragic end as Sally is roped into a prostitution ring and ultimately to her doom. But there's a fine line between satirizing the antiquated and sometimes offensive mores of an earlier age, and simply re-presenting them, and The Road to Ruin, especially in its second act, comes down too often on the wrong side of that line for my liking.
It starts out promisingly enough: young Sally, an ingenue with a Goldilocks mane of long blond curls (Brooke Sunny Moriber, who remains charmingly wide-eyed even as Sally sinks into depravity), spreads joy and home-baked cookies wherever she goes. And at the top of the show, she discovers a new dream in life—to become a veterinarian, doctoring puppies with home-baked dog/people biscuit/cookies. Unfortunately for Sally, she's about to be led astray by the evil Eve Terril (the delightfully wicked Cristina Fadale); posing as the owner of a sickly pup, Eve begins by tempting Sally with a stick of gum and rapidly moves on to bobbing her hair, stuffing her bra, teaching her to smoke, and bringing her to a party where bootleg alcohol will soon lead to Sally's arrest. Sally's parents are asleep on the job—her father is running around town with other women, and her mother is completely oblivious—and so Eve is able to get her claws in deep. Sally's set on a terrible path that will lead her, after a cruel rebuff by the college boy she thought loved her (but was really in cahoots with Eve), to become "The Bob-Haired Bandit," a sexpot roaming the street. . .and that's only the beginning of the end for poor Sally.
Even as it starts to seem like Sally was headed for a dire fate, Act 1 remains firmly and enjoyably tongue-in-cheek. Chewing gum, drinking, even a game of strip poker set to the jazzy number "You Can Bet Your Sweater and Sally's trip to juvenile detention are all seen through the absurdly alarmist lens of parody. And the ensemble is terrific—in addition to Moriber and Fadale, standouts include Billy Wheelan as both the Jesus-loving entrepreneur Jimmy Goodhue and the seducer Buster Custer; John O'Creagh as the narrator who also manages to insert himself into every seen—as Buster's college pal Biff, a corrupt Irish cop, and a gossipy hausfrau; and Christy McIntosh, most entertaining as Penelope Phuff, a jaded friend of Sally's mother who also seems to moonlight as a voyeur, prostitute, and general troublemaker about town.
But as Act 2 got darker and darker, I started to feel that the show, both in the writing and in Mary Catherine Burke's direction, lost its grasp on the tone of some of the parody: "The Mahjong Song," featuring suburban housewives in kimonos singing its chorus in bad Asian accents; "La Mosca Espanola," an ode to the covert use of Spanish fly, likewise with a put-on accent; "Henger's Harangue," the solo performed by the abortionist operating on Sally. Mocking the premise that a stick of gum and a bad-girl friend will eventually lead to back-alley abortions, prostitution, and an early grave is one thing; setting the back-alley abortion to a jazzy musical number, in the context of the lightheartedly spoofing tone set for the show, feels like a big step too far—as did Madame Flora (the brothel operator)'s theme song, with its chorus proclaiming "You Can Always Make a Buck on Your Back." By the finale, an overly long musical number that sees Sally into her grave (but not before sharing her secret cookie recipe), her father renouncing his patronage of prostitutes, and her parents vowing to have another child, I was more uncomfortable than entertained.