Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical (David Venn Enterprises)
Home of the Arts
January 20 – 28
“Let’s do this!” Kathryn Merteuil (Kirby Burgess) proclaims as The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ swells over the final scenes of “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” in recreation of its source material’s iconic conclusion. This musical, created Jordan Ross, Linsey Rosin and Roger Kumble (writer and director of the film of the same name), however, is more than just an on-stage recreation of its 1999 Hollywood namesake.
Filled with throwback hits, it is more of ‘90s jukebox musical arranged around faithful recreation of the cult-hit film’s narrative about two vicious step-siblings, Mertevil and Sebastian Valmont (Drew Weston) who, fuelled by passion and revenge, make a wager for Sebastian to deflower the innocent daughter of their elite Manhattan prep school’s new headmaster before the start of term. As the two set out to destroy Annette Hargrove (Kelsey Halge), as well as anyone else who gets in their way, they find themselves playing a perilous game in what is a modern-day telling of the 1782 French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos , faithful in its recreation of another of its adaptions, “Dangerous Liaisons”.
Things remain true to the film with inclusion of iconic ‘Kiss Me’ type scenes and “silly rabbit” dialogue quips, however, familiarity with the source material is not required to enjoy the high-energy spectacle on stage as, under Alister Smith’s direction, the plot is made efficiently accessible. This is aided by Craig Wilkinson’s striking video design which serves to emphasise the main take-aways from character interactions and allows for a final focus on the damming text of Valmont’s journal. Simple (and seamless) scene transitions keep things moving with smooth blocking allow for, as an example, speedy transitions between four separate conversations as plans fall into place to allow Sebastian’s woo of Annette to occur. And Declan O’Neill’s stunning lighting design heightens key emotional moments.
Storytelling is also enhanced by intertwined placement of appropriately lyric-ed ‘90s era classics with a score that includes back to back hits, including by Britney, Christina and alike. Indeed, there are many highlights from amongst the score’s different musical personalities. Performing from scaffold above the stage, revealed at various times throughout the show, the band’s musicians (David Youings, Chris Connelly, Anthony Chircop, Michael Chewter, Toby Loveland, Glen Moorehouse and Sam Blackburn) are also given individual opportunities to shine through the versatile set list. Annette’s entrance is to a rocking guitar and drum filled ‘Just a Girl’, while Counting Crows’ ‘Color Blind’ contains contemplative piano to accent the magnitude of Sebastian’s mood late in Act Two. And *NSYNC pop and TLC R&B boy and girl group numbers elicit overwhelming response as clear audience favourites.
Surprisingly perhaps, there is a sophistication to the musical’s score that elevates the show’s craftedness as songs are cut, sliced and melded together, including in a brilliant Act One closing overlapping medley of many of its songs. And Act Two includes a memorable ‘Bitch’ and ‘Losing My Religion’ mashup from Burgess and Weston. Freya List’s choreography also captures the core intent of songs in character revelation and plot progression, with ‘Sex and Candy’ between Blaine (Ross Chisari) and the closeted Greg (Joseph Spanti) who is about to be blackmailed by Sebastian, standing as a playful highlight. And Isaac Lummis’s costume design is all 90s and also of the film, down to even the detail of jewellery and accessories.
There are no weak links in the talented cast of performers who are each given individual moments to shine. Playing a well-known character on stage that someone else has portrayed so iconically in film can come with some expectation, however, Burgess adds her own touches of hurt-people-hurt-people humanity to the scheming seductress Kathryn, stealing the show with her fierce portrayal and rich vocal tones, from her very first ‘I’m the Only One’ appearance which conveys impressive intonation in its Bonnie Raitt like belt.
Weston, meanwhile, gives us a strong ‘Iris’, while Halge makes her following ‘Foolish Games’ heartbreaking in its stirring emotion. Rishab Kern’s (as music teacher Ronald) vocals are also impressive in his share of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ with his character’s forbidden lover Cecile (Sarah Krndija) when the two are pushed together as unknowing pawns in Kathryn and Sebastian’s game. And though ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ feels narratively superfluous, Fem Belling, as Cecile’s mother, gives it the necessary, empowering vocal oomph.
In a story of highly sexualised characters, Krndija’s more wholesome Cecile is an absolute delight. Always angular in movement, she captures the awkwardness of the quirky character, new arrived and clearly childish, naive, spoiled and inexperienced, making her an easy target to Kathryn’s self-motivated manipulations. And her Boyz II Mean seduction attempt is a hilarity of well-timed physical comedy and perfectly pitched exaggeration.
If opening night is any indication, “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical” is sure to be a popular trip down ‘90s memory lane. Its experience of debauchery (its warning notes the show’s nudity, course language and adult content), discman and a dash of Dawson’s Creek type tunes is at-once glossy and gritty, provocative, but also still somewhat problematic in its narrative. In terms of nostalgia, however, this is pure infectious celebration of an era. You will need to get your guilty pleasure on quickly though as its limited season means that the show will be saying ‘Bye Bye Bye’ before you know it.
Photos c/o – Nicole Cleary