Adapted from the 1782 French novel ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’ or its English title ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, the 1999 ‘Cruel Intentions’ film was an, at the time, modern retelling of the story. Containing themes of love, lust, angst, adolescence, sex, drugs, and romance, and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair and Joshua Jackson, the film follows a handful of wealthy young American teens in New York City.
Admittedly, when I discovered that a Cruel Intentions musical would be touring Australia, I was quite puzzled and curious about its existence. How could they turn such a film into a musical, and can it really be pulled off?
We all know the story of Cruel Intentions, but for those that don’t, the story follows rich teen stepsiblings Katheryn Murteuil and Sebastian Valmont that agree to a little wager. If Sebastian manages to take the incoming headmaster’s daughter’s virginity before school begins, she will ‘fuck’ him. But if he fails, Kathryn will take Sebastian’s most prized possession (other than his journal), his vintage car, a 1956 Jaguar XK140 Roadster.
Knowing that the film is set in the 90s, so too is the musical. With musical numbers from various artists of the same era, the jukebox musical consists of iconic tunes including No Doubt’s ‘Just a Girl’, Britney Spears’ ‘Sometimes’, TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’, and NSYNC’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’, just to name a few. You would think that these songs being in the show would already win you over and make out for a great night out. But the show does you one better and contains 4 songs that were originally on the Cruel Intentions film soundtrack including ‘Every You Every Me’ by Placebo, The Cardigan’s ‘Lovefool’, Counting Crows’ ‘Colorblind’, and of course, The Verve’s ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
The musical’s plot is almost word-for-word from its film counterpart, with much of the original story unchanged. The 90s hit songs are also cleverly placed between moments that only further enhance the narrative. Despite the music existing prior to the musical and most of the songs not being relevant to Cruel Intentions until now, remarkably, it works. If I didn’t grow up with the music, if I had never seen the Cruel Intentions film, I still would have easily followed the musical and enjoyed it.
Not only did the strategic placing of music and the songs choices thoroughly impress me, but so too did the production’s visuals. The costuming consisted of chic 90s garb, pastel colours, bright colours, lace, and stylish school uniforms. At first glance, the set appeared plain with embossed movable walls and vague details of pictures frames upon them. But they were quickly brought to life with the flick of a switch. The use projections, something I’m used to seeing more in visual digital art, were smart additional catalysts of the narrative and were used in ways that I’ve not seen in musical theatre before. I adored the walls changing to show pages from Sebastian’s journal, the interior décor of the rooms of his home, the busy New York City streets with cars actively passing by, and even the lyrics of the songs in the show that often appeared everywhere, at the same time that the cast would be singing them.
Although the Australian cast of ‘Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical’ is small, their strong stage presence and killer vocals provide everything the show needs. Lead by Drew Weston in the role of Sebastian Valmont, Weston is the perfect leading man of this production, showcasing both his commanding stage presence and vulnerability. Despite Sebastian being a very naughty young man, you can’t help but love him and feel for him, even when he is at his most broken self. Weston’s most powerful moment of the production is when he sings ‘Colorblind’. Not only is he completely captivating, showcasing a side to Sebastian that we’ve not seen before, with vocals that are not to be trifled with, but even when Weston is not saying anything at all, the emotion and depth in his eyes speak volumes.
Despite being deliciously terrible, no matter your sexuality, it’s hard not to be infatuated by Katheryn Murteuil. An unapologetic, promiscuous young woman with vengeance on her mind, Katheryn uses her sexuality and her fast words to bend the will of others. While she goes about things the wrong way, it’s hard not to relate to the reasons on why she is so angry all the time. Why are women judged in a negative way if we’re sexually confident, but men are praised for it? Kirby Burgess does a incredible job in this iconic role to the point that not only does she blow you away in every single number with her mutant lungs and insanely impressive voice, but you can feel her character’s frustration and fury emanate whenever Burgess is on stage.
Rishab Kern as Ronald Clifford, Kelsey Halge as Annette Hargrove, and Fem Belling as Mrs. Bunny Caldwell are equally as impressive vocally from what I could hear. Unfortunately, during opening night their vocals were drowned out by the band being louder than them and it really hindered the experience of their otherwise faultless performances. During the second act, the audio was rectified, and I am certain that this will be improved for future performances. It was just a shame that I didn’t get to witness these three stars at their best, given the circumstances regarding the sound. I really do hope that I can before the end of the Melbourne season.
Euan Fistrovic Doidge and Joseph Spanti somehow won the song lottery and perform the best songs of show with an energy exchange that is both entertaining, masterful, and hilarious. Their chemistry is also unmatched to the point that these two in their roles as Blaine Tuttle and Greg McConnell, almost steal the show.
But it is Francine Cain that really won me over. Admittedly, Cecile Caldwell is my least favourite character in the film. I mean, I really don’t like film Cecile. But I left the production with the affirmation that Cain was my favourite of the night. Cain plays Cecile Caldwell as a quirky, bubbly, innocent, gullible and awkward young lady. What makes Cain’s Cecile unique however, is that no matter what Cain does, you adore her character regardless. She effortlessly makes Cecile likable. Her vocals are fantastic too and whenever Cain is on stage, you can’t help but crack into a smile.
‘Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical’ is surprisingly one of the cleverest pieces of theatre that have come into existence within the last ten years. Whether you love the film, or just want a fun night out while supporting Australian theatre, this fun adrenaline rush of 90s nostalgia is well worth braving the Melbourne cold for.
‘Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical’ had its Australian premiere in Melbourne and is now playing at Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre until the 25th of June.
For more information on ticketing or for national tour dates, visit: https://www.cruelintentions.com.au
Photography by Nicole Cleary.