Alta Abbott Reflects on Directing Ruthless! The Musical for Theatre Palisades (Now Playing), and the Complexity of Doing a Genre Piece


Julie Feinstein Adams

“I’m very new at this,” director Alta Abbott jokes, noting that she’s been “in theater” in one way or another since childhood (she’s now 55).

“I started ushering with Long Beach Civic Light Opera at age 11! They took me under their wing and taught me everything, from rails to costuming. One day, the conductor came to me, and said ‘Come on you’re coming into the pit with me’ — in the middle of West Side Story, he hands me the baton! I was scared to death! But of course the orchestra knew what they were doing. That was the beginning of my education in theater.”

Like any good ingenue, Abbott did do some acting earlier in her career. She recalls, “I was always terrified at auditions. I’d be fine by opening night, but I thought, ‘Why am I doing this to myself? I can do other things in the theater.'"

“So, I started directing.”

At at time in her career when Abbott was working as an executive assistant to a Vice President in reality TV, she asked her boss, “‘What makes you see in someone that ‘thing’ you think is going to pop on TV?’”

Abbott realized she could ask the same for the stage and pay attention to that special
something she herself can “just see” in people.

“I call it ‘pixie dust,’” she says. “I see this pixie dust, and it clicks; let’s pull him out and see where we can go from here.”

Ruthless! The Musical is Abbott’s first time directing with Theatre Palisades, but not her first experience with the script.

She recalls, “I saw Ruthless! at The Canon in 1994. That was the only time it was produced here in Los Angeles, professionally. The show never got to Broadway, it was an Off-Broadway show. And after it ran here, it kind-of disappeared. But I saw it then, and I fell in love with it and it has been a show that has stuck in my mind ever since. So when I saw that Theatre Palisades was planning to produce it for their 2019 season, I jumped at the chance to direct it.”

Abbott is thoughtful about any criticism her production might receive. “I think this type of comedy is not everyone’s cup of tea. Ruthless! is — you think at first it’s a very simple musical, and it’s not. It’s very complicated. It’s a spoof and a farce referencing so many different movies and theatrical shows. If you don’t know them, you won’t get some of the references."

“We showed the cast The Bad Seed, and All About Eve, and that helped them understand the script. Most of them were too young, had never seen these great old movies!”

Because of the specificity of the genres referenced, and the humor, Abbott notes, “This is a show that you can’t just cast anybody. They have to be suited for very specific roles, to behave in very specific ways."

“I really enjoyed casting this show!” she adds. “And of course, getting a child who could not only act and sing but also tap dance at a young age to play the 8-year-old lead character was an accomplishment! I was so blessed to get Benni Rose. She is amazing. She is so talented and mature, I forget sometimes that she’s actually only 14 years old. And John Sparks, when he turns into Sylvia, he embodies her so completely, we all use the feminine pronouns without even thinking. Every one of the actors in this show, I just love and adore; they are a joy to work with!”

About casting Sparks, she adds, “I’ve known John for years. In the back of your mind, you are always casting... I had cast him in my head, but I’m not a director who just casts my friends; I cast what is best for the show. Another friend of mine also auditioned for Sylvia, and we had to say ‘No’ to him. But he agreed with our choice. He said, ‘I would have picked John, too.’”

Abbott’s history with Theatre Palisades before this came mostly through her husband, Greg Abbott, an actor who has performed in several of the community theater’s shows over the years (The Fantasticks, Lend Me a Tenor, Bark! The Musical).

She says, “I would always drive my husband to rehearsals, and depending on the director, they’d let me sit in. Sherman Wayne would let me sit next to him, and he would teach me about what he was doing. And when I had ideas, I would tell him, ‘...there’s this… Do you see? ...that actor’s pants aren’t looking right…” little details like that."

Her attention to detail and ability to see the pixie dust are just two of the many reasons Theatre Palisades reached out to Abbott to direct one of the company’s shows.

She recalls, “The Theatre Palisades Board first approached about directing Mousetrap, and I said, ‘Agatha Christie isn’t my type of thing.’ When I told them I’d like to direct Ruthless! — they hadn’t found a director for that yet. They had already decided to produce that show for the season, but I could tell that some of them were worried; like, ‘I don’t know… there’s a lot of killing in this....’”

She laughs. “I said, ‘But you guys are doing Mousetrap! There’s lots of murder in that, too. In Ruthless!, I’m murdering people with a pink sparkly gun!’ — and then they said, ‘Okay, that’s funny!’”

Ruthless! The Musical runs Friday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, through December 8th, at Theatre Palisades. For Information and Reservations call 310-454-1970 or click here to purchase tickets online.