‘Ruthless!’ sings but ‘Zombie Prom’ is D.O.A.

Into every theatrical landscape a campy musical must fall, and Creative Cauldron is filling the bill with “Ruthless! The Musical,” about a talented 8-year-old who will do anything for the lead role in her grade-school show.

This is pure diversion: Produ­cing director Laura Connors Hull says she picked it six months ago as a haven from whatever campaign drama would be subsuming D.C. by now. Luckily, it’s being acted and sung to the silly hilt in Creative Cauldron’s comfortable 80-seat theater in Falls Church.

The saga is “The Bad Seed” meets “Gypsy” and “All About Eve,” so director Matt Conner — a performer himself, and the composer of several musicals at Signature Theatre — keeps his actors at a mostly amusingly high level of anxiety. The lithe Alan Naylor, in drag as the rapacious talent agent Sylvia St. Croix, sets the frothy tone as he totters on high heels and wearing fur. Katie McManus is chirpy homemaker Judy Denmark, whose daughter Tina (a winningly ambitious Sophie Manicone) hops up onto the living-room coffee table to belt “Born to Entertain.”

“How ya doin’?” Manicone winks to a man in the front row during the song. Acting like an old vaudeville pro, she adds, “It’s a rhetorical question.”

Marvin Laird wrote the 1992 show’s blunt and sprightly music (played by two offstage keyboardists), and the book and lyrics are by Joel Paley. The lampoon sputters in the final stretch, but before it’s out of gas we’re treated to a gleefully mean-spirited critic who belts “I Hate Musicals.” Kathy Halenda knocks the number home with Mermanesque brass; there’s a knowing polish to the performances that makes “Ruthless!” a decent escape.

That shine is missing in “Zombie Prom,” another campy 1990s off-Broadway musical getting its area premiere. Boy meet girl, boy loses girl, boy despairs and jumps into a vat of nuclear waste. He returns as a zombie — but can he still go the prom?

This is strictly for hardcore musical devotees who want to see what Dana P. Rowe and John Dempsey wrote before their musicals “The Fix” and “The Witches of Eastwick.” The Unexpected Stage Company, last seen showcasing Deb Margolin in “8 Stops,” isn’t giving buffs a particularly good look. Virtually the only number inspiring a grin is the 1950s-style girl-group ballad “Jonny Don’t Go” (“ . . . to the nuclear plant” is the rest of the plea), sung with nice comic understatement by Julia Klavans as the doomed Jonny’s girlfriend, Toffee. The rock-and-roll quartet tucked up onto a platform in a back corner of the stage tries to capture the feel of the 1950s sock-hop score but can’t quite swing it. Neither can much of the rest of the indifferently designed, unevenly performed show.

Ruthless! The Musical Music by Marvin Laird, book and lyrics by Joel Paley. Directed by Matt Conner. Musical director, Walter “Bobby” McCoy; choreography, Kara-Tameika -Watkins; set and costume design, Margie Jarvis; lights, Joseph Lovins. With Tamarin Ythier and Shaina Virginia Kuhn. Through Oct. 30 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. $30. Call 703-436-9948 or visit creativecauldron.org.

Zombie Prom Music by Dana P. Rowe, book and lyrics by John Dempsey. Directed by Christopher Goodrich. Choreography, Jane Rabinovitz; musical direction, Brandon Heishman; set, William T. Fleming; lights, Gary Hauptman; costumes, Debra Leonard; sound design, Matthew Mills. With Will Hawkins, Dallas Milholland, Joshua Simon, Jordan Clark Halsey, Katie Culligan, Philip da Costa and RJ Pavel. Through Oct. 30 at Randolph Road Theater, 4010 Randolph Rd., Wheaton. $10-$27.50. Call 800-838-3006 or visit unexpectedstage.org.

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