David Venn’s Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical is on its final week in Melbourne, so now is the perfect time to write a quick review before it leaves the Athenaeum Theatre.
My sister and I were lucky to score two tickets in the lottery, which brought tickets down to $35 each. Unlike other lotteries, we were able to choose our seats in A or B reserves. We landed on the far-left side of row H, which were excellent for the crazy low price.
Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical (Cruel Intentions for brevity’s sake) does not attract your regular theatre crowd. It is a show fuelled by nostalgia – for the 1999 cult classic starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon and those wanting to relive the hits of the ‘90s.
The press release reads (thus SPOILER FREE!): Drawing you deep into the manipulative world of Manhattan’s most tempting liaisons: Sebastian Valmont (Drew Weston) and Kathryn Merteuil (Kirby Burgess) are seduced by revenge and fueled by passion. Set out to ravage the virtuous Annette Hargrove (Kelsey Halge) and anyone who gets in their way, the (step) siblings find themselves entangled in a web of secrets, temptation, and the cruelest game of all: love.
Those who get caught in the game include Cecile Cardwell (Francine Cain), Euan Fistrovic Doidge (Blaine Tuttle), Greg McConnell (Joseph Spanti) and Ronald Clifford (Rishab Kern).
As someone who is not the biggest fan of jukebox musicals, I was drawn to it for my love of the movie as well as the iconic songs. In addition to songs from the film’s soundtrack, such as The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony and Colorblind by Counting Crows, the musical incorporates songs by Britney Spears (Sometimes), NSYNC (Bye Bye Bye), Christina Aguilera (Genie In A Bottle), Shania Twain (Man! I Feel Like A Woman), Garbage (Only Happy When It Rains), Goo Goo Dolls (Iris), Meredith Brooks (Bitch), The Cardigans (Lovefool), Sixpence None The Richer (Kiss Me), Mandy Moore (Candy) and more, including a few genius mash-ups.
The film is dark and dramatic, so I was fearful hearing the show described as overly comedic, so I was turned off at first. It’s not exactly the film you go to when you think of upbeat pop songs, so the tone has been slightly moulded. However, a lot of the humour is situational and the songs are greeted with laughs of recognition, so they haven’t turned it into a laugh out loud comedy, but it’s funny, and a real hit and miss. The cast do do their best to make it work, and most of the time they’re successful, although some beats don’t land like “I’ll let you put it anywhere” or the iconic same-sex kissing scene, which are comedic in nature rather than a dramatic pause.
Being a jukebox musical, meaning the songs aren’t written specifically for the show, often the lyrics don’t make sense to the character. While not a complaint, it is worth mentioning for purists. My case in point is Ronald Clifford (played by Rishab Kern) singing TLC’s No Scrubs. When Mrs. Caldwell (Fem Belling) calls him a “scrub”, it doesn’t completely make sense for him to sing “No, I don’t want no scrub. A scrub is a guy that can’t get no love from me. Hangin’ out the passenger side of his best friend’s ride. Trying to holla at me,” but it works well enough.
Music should always propel the story, and that’s not always the case here. The one song I thought was completely wrong was Annette singing No Doubt’s Just A Girl. Perhaps it’s the influence of Captain Marvel, but I thought she needed something softer for her introduction. Also, aside, the relationship between Sebastian and Annette does feel a tad rushed and undeveloped but I suspect this is due to the show-stealing camp expansion of Blaine (as played by Joshua Jackson in the film), allowing Doidge more stage time to flesh out his character.
Now thinking about it, the audience aren’t given much time to latch onto the lead characters. Sebastian and Kathryn seem to have no redeeming qualities and appear as two horrible people by the second act, when they had more depth and dimension in the film. The running time is roughly the same as the film, so given the addition of musical numbers, this makes sense.
With a few movable set pieces (chairs, couch, and walls) the staging is minimal yet well utilised (including the technical wizardly of scrawling text from Sebastian’s journal by Craig Wilkinson). The cast is also small but considered. It’s also worth noting that the band is visible on the stage and at the beginning were noticeably loud (especially during the Act I finale where I could not distinguish what any character was singing). Though perhaps it was an off night.
Parent advisory. There is coarse language, nudity, adult themes, and sexual references so basically, if you wouldn’t let you child watch the film, don’t take them to the musical.
In conclusion, I was quickly turned around by its clever wit, devilish charm, and slick production. The experienced cast pay homage to the original while also making the characters their own. Plotlines and scenes are woven together masterfully, with dazzling choreography crafted by Freya List backed by Daniel Puckey’s tight musical direction.
While the musical is FAR from perfect; in simple terms, I loved it. If you’re wanting a nostalgic trip down memory lane, Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical is for you. But it’s not for everyone.
Cruel Intentions leaves Melbourne on June 25, before heading to Sydney from June 30, Brisbane from July 27, Perth from August 24, Adelaide from September 8, and Canberra from October 5.
For more information, go to: Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical