One of the biggest film trends in to 90s was retelling ‘classic’ films and plays but with sexy teens. This would almost always be profitable and many have become cult classics. Cruel Intentions was one of the most successful films to follow this trend. Its impact on the pop culture was immense. You can still see its influence in film and television, already having a melodramatic story and an iconic soundtrack, so turning it into a musical was always going to be inevitable.
What I associated with Cruel Intentions the most was its soundtrack. As a youngster, I hadn’t seen the movie and I still owned the soundtrack. That’s how iconic it is. So, I went into this production with some trepidation, would ‘Every You Every Me’ and ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ sound like they had been covered on Glee or would the original composition still work in a theatrical tone? I was surprised and very happy with the end product.
Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical follows the same plot line as the film, step siblings; Kathryn Merteuil (Kirby Burgess) and Sebastian Valmont (Drew Weston) are Upper-East side private school teenagers that are as malicious as they are wealthy. Kathryn is a woman scorned and Sebastian is a sex addict that has filled his journal with stories about his ‘conquests’. As filled as his journal’s pages are, he’s grown bored. So, the two place a bet on whether Sebastian can take the new principal’s daughter, Annette Hargrove’s (Kelsey Halge) virginity before the school year starts. If he doesn’t, Kathryn gets his beloved 1956 Jaguar XK140 Roadster. And if he does, he gets the one girl he can’t sleep with, her.
The productions biggest strength is that it gives some of the film’s flatter characters more depth. This is most evident with Sebastian, going from a flat, bad-boy-turned-good, to a character that shows true growth. I have to credit this to Drew Weston, not only is he a far better actor than the film’s Sebastian, Ryan Phillippe, but his talents as a singer and dancer gives the character the growth that’s needed for the audience to believe his redemption arch. The aspect of his performance that has still resonated with me long after leaving the theatre is how his posture changed as Sebastian’s character grew. Even just a slight change in his voice. These might seem like small things, but it just gave the performance so much depth and was so subtle, but still so striking.
I don’t think anyone would disagree with me in saying that Kirby Burgess has the biggest shoes to fill playing Kathryn. Sarah Michelle Gellar is what made the character so iconic, but Burgess knocks it out of the park. Like Weston, she excels in everything she does on stage, she has all the sexuality needed but never relied on it, and you could watch her with your eyes closed and you’d just know from her vocals alone the type of character Kathryn was. Burgess has vocal power that is so strong, she never falters in the leading role and tackles the No Doubt song ‘Sunday Morning’ with as much gusto as Gwen Stefani.
The cast of Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical may not boast scores of extras but every person that steps onto the stage is faultless, consisting of Ross Chisari as Blaine Truffle, Joseph Spanti as Greg McConnell, Rishab Kern as Ronald Clifford, Fem Belling as Mrs. Caldwell, and Sarah Krndija as Cecile Caldwell. Much like Weston, Krndija and Chisari were far better than their film counterparts. As far as musical number go, Chisari and Spanti were bringing so much fun with *NSYNC’s ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ and Marcy Playground’s ‘Sex and Candy’. Despite not being the main romance, the two had such great chemistry that I would watch again for the two of them alone.
My personal favourite was undoubtedly Sarah Krndija as the eclectic Cecile, a character that always frustrated me in the film, treading this fine line of being childish but falling into the uncomfortable, something I couldn’t find any humour in regarding Selma Blair’s film performance. Krndija is entirely different, she plays Cecile campy and taking the characters more ridiculous moments up to an 11. In the same way that Chisari and Spanti have a chance to camp it up, Krndija makes every moment she’s on-stage bewitching, little subtleties include picking a wedgie out as she’s exiting the stage.
Adding to the campy, and indulgent style is how the scene transitions, musical numbers are choreographed, and the use of the projector to enhance the experience. The projections would be something as simple as setting the scene with Upper-East Side houses or the streets of Manhattan. The very best of these was projections were when the lyrics appeared during the songs.
As Sebastian’s character evolves, his journal entries are also projected, giving a valuable insight into his character that isn’t spoken.
Everything that I thought wouldn’t work about Cruel Intentions as a musical was effective and worked faultlessly. The songs never fell into Glee adaption territory, every song was given to the right character and never felt shoe horned in to fill the run time. I’ve always been indifferent to jukebox musicals, sometimes they seem lazy, an easy way out of having songs in your musical without having to write them but this never seemed to be the case here. All the songs have been arranged so they are still familiar but suited to the context of the play, something I’ve never experienced in a jukebox musical before.
What made Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical such a success for me was that it knew what it was, embracing the source material and the luxuriousness of the 90s. Even the playbook has embraced this. If you want to have fun, go see this. I can guarantee that you’ll have an amazing time. The music is great, the show is fun, the cast are having a fantastic time on stage and they’re taking you along for the ride.
Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical is currently playing in Melbourne at the Athenaeum Theatre until March 12.
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Photography by Steven Grevis.