1999 was a memorable year for teen films: American Pie, Election, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, and Never Been Kissed, just to name a few. Also, on that list was Cruel Intentions. Produced on a minor budget of just $10 million and against all odds, it was a surprise hit when it was released in cinemas in March of that year, becoming a box office success that spawned a great soundtrack and a less successful direct to video sequel and the prequel.
Now playing in Melbourne at The Athenaeum Theatre as part of its national tour is Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical, a jukebox musical based on that 1999 movie which in turn is a modern-day telling of the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
The movie, directed by Roger Kumble, transformed the story from 17th century France to the present day affluent Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City and the lives of several wealthy high school teenagers. As one might expect from a movie title like this, the story contains extraordinarily strong adult themes of sex, drugs, lust, homosexuality, manipulation, and seduction.
The original movie starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe, and Selma Blair who all became household names upon its release. The musical has been phenomenally successful since its first stage production began in 2015 and since then has been performed in Hollywood, New York, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Lately, there has been something of a nostalgia train of film to stage musicals from different eras:
The Wedding Singer and Dirty Dancing from the 1980s. Clueless from the 1990s. Bring it On and Mean Girls from the 2000s. On its opening night last Friday, and despite the chilly weather, there was such a strong turnout of theatre-goers, that the line to enter almost stretched out to the corner outside of the Melbourne Town Hall. The night was the nineties themed and as such, some of the attendees dressed up as icons of the decade such as members of the Spice Girls or the Alicia Silverstone’s character Cher from Clueless. Old nineties hits from the era like NSYNC, Eminem, and Britney Spears played on the house speakers as the audience members took to their seats before the show.
Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical closely follows the film, almost word for word. Set in New York City in the summer of 1999, it tells the story of two rich and spoiled teens, Kathryn, played by Kirby Burgess, and Sebastian played by Drew Weston. Both are step-siblings who enjoy nothing more than manipulating and seeking revenge on others for their own personal enjoyment.
For example, in an early scene, Sebastian tricks his therapist into believing she has cured him of his sexual deviant behaviour, only to find out that he was dating and later seeking revenge porn on her daughter the whole time. Adding an extra twisted layer to this, both Kathryn and Sebastian are sexually attracted to one other and have been since their parents were married.
Upon hearing the news that a popular, clean-cut girl, Annette Hargrove, played by Kelsey Halge, is transferring to their school and famously wrote in a teen magazine that she is saving herself for marriage, the step-siblings place a bet on whether Sebastian can seduce Annette and take away her virginity before the new school year begins. Should he succeed, Kathryn is all his, but should he fail, Kathryn will take Sebastian’s most prized possession his car, a 1956 Jaguar XK140 Roadster.
The stage set was impressive with its movable walls and the use of projections that seamlessly changed the scene from a busy NYC city street, complete with the sounds of taxis honking, to the inside of the step sibling’s mansion-like house and to what I thought was smart, projecting the lyrics of the songs in the show and other spoken dialogue. The effort in getting the costumes right was noted with the school uniforms and the larger than I remembered, mobile phones being carried on stage.
Complimenting this, of course, was the cast who were all brilliant, starting with Drew Weston as Sebastian Valmont, who proved to be a talented lead in this production and no doubt in many others that will follow. Whether it was the singing or the dancing or acting, he owned the stage from the opening scene.
Kirby Burgess does an amazing performance in bringing the cold, calculating, and sex-crazed Kathryn to life on stage and channeling Sarah Michelle Gellar in the process.
Not to be outdone, Kelsey Halge as Annette Hargrove, played in the movie by Reese Witherspoon, was also outstanding, in particular, her singing and having great on-stage chemistry with Kirby and Drew.
Francine Cain as the innocent and sweet, but dim-witted Cecile Caldwell was one of the highlights of the show and brought the audience into fits of laughter whenever she was on along with Fem Belling as her formidable mother, Ms. Caldwell.
The other cast members were just as talented in their brief time on stage: Rishab Kern as the music teacher Ronald, Euan Fistrovic Doidge as Blaine Tuttle, Sebastian’s gay friend, and Joseph Spanti as the football jock Greg McConnell.
Finally, the music. Whether it was the band and the cast performing it live or being heard on playback, it was an enjoyable trip down memory lane for members in the audience, especially those who are old enough to remember hearing them the first time around. Notable songs featured: Lovefool, Colourblind, my favourite – Bittersweet Symphony, and even a quick few bars of NSYNC’s Bye, Bye, Bye, in their finale to the audience.
Although it had remained faithful to its source material of the movie, it could have toned down some of the more explicit elements in the film such as the nudity and swearing. If anything, after watching the movie again the day after the musical, the stage show was even more explicit than the film version and exaggerated and overdid certain parts that were either done more tastefully or not shown at all in the film version.
Despite its overuse of expletives, coarse behaviour, and adult themes, Cruel Intentions: The ’90s is still an enjoyable performance to witness and anyone who enjoys theatre musicals and in particular, nostalgic ones like Clueless and Bring it On, Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical should be added to your list. This show is not suited for those under eighteen.
Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical is now on for a limited season until Saturday 25 June at The Athenaeum Theatre at 188 Collins St, Melbourne CBD before playing at The State Theatre in Sydney from 30 June.
To buy tickets, go to – www.cruelintentions.com.au
Review and words by Jake Freeman