Dallas — My companion at the Wyly Theatre on opening night turned to me after act one and hit the nail on the head.
“This show has no right to be this good, but it SO is.”
That statement sums up Cruel Intentions: the ‘90s Musical perfectly. The more jaded theatergoers might assume the worst — a pastiche sendup of the late 1990s destined to join the ranks of other movies-turned-musicals that were best left in the VHS box. But this production is thankfully more than that, staying true to the dark comedy of its source material and expanding on it in a fresh, fun way.
Cruel Intentions, presented by the AT&T Performing Arts Center, is based on the 1999 movie of the same name, which is in turn based on the 1782 novel that spawned countless adaptations on stage, screen, and in print. It capitalized on hot young Hollywood stars to give the film a modern punch, ending up with a proto-Gossip Girl romp through upper-class New York City that both scandalized and tantalized.
The musical doesn’t stray from that formula, thanks to a cast of attractive young actors who evoke the original movie cast quite well. It certainly helps that the screenwriter and director for the movie, Roger Kumble, is also one of the co-creators of the musical, ensuring that his direction and intent for the material shines through. But in some ways, this format works even better.
By far, the best aspect of the production is the music. At its most basic level, Cruel Intentions is a jukebox musical that sounds a lot like an afternoon set list from 1998, a collection of earworms that many audience members will recognize instantly.
But the magic happens in the way that the songs are cleverly woven into each scene, giving extra oomph to the inner turmoils and joys of the characters in unexpected ways.
The show fully embraces everything from Britpop to Britney Spears, expanding past the original motion picture soundtrack to match just the right song with particular characters and their moments. The show hits a multitude of 1990s Top 40 high points, from the Verve’s unmistakable track, “Bittersweet Symphony,” to Jewel’s angsty classic “Foolish Games.”
Part of the fun is figuring out where the songs listed in the Playbill will finally fit in. For instance, the b-plot blackmail-turned-love story between closet-case Greg (a charmingly awkward John Battagliese) and catty, cutting Blaine (played by delightful triple-threat David Wright) is fleshed out through sly, smart snippets of Backstreet Boys and N’SYNC that get the audience both bopping and busting a gut.
But it isn’t all played for laughs. One of the most iconic songs from the original motion picture soundtrack, “Colorblind” by Counting Crows, is transformed into an evocative scene for main characters Sebastian and Annette, the former coming to terms with his true feelings and the latter trying to run away from hers. It feels very real and raw.
Jeffrey Kringle as Sebastian Valmont is full of just the right amount of smirk and smarm, but he is never better than when he allows his vulnerability to shine through alongside Betsy Stewart, who is a striking doppelgänger for the original Annette Hargrove, played on film by Reese Witherspoon. They have believable chemistry that sparks on stage and lends weight to the twist of the story.
His counterpart, Taylor Pearlstein, infuses Kathryn Merteuil’s diabolical bad girl with a sassy, rock and roll sensibility and a belt that could blow the hair back from your face. Pearlstein gets a lion’s share of big vocal numbers in the show and never wavers once.
Brooke Singer is the beating heart of the show as the quirky, sheltered Cecile Caldwell. She gives Cecile’s awkward naivety a sincere turn while also never shying away from going full-bore with physical comedy. Her mother, played by cast chameleon Dara Orland, is the other comedic standout in the show as she slowly loses control of her daughter to Sebastian and Kathryn’s nefarious plot. Orland’s big scene with Richard Crandle, who plays musician and Cecile’s would-be beau, Ronald Clifford, was boldly hilarious.
The band that backs up the Cruel cast is hidden behind the set, and until they were revealed as playing live, they sounded so clean and precise that it was a surprise they weren’t pre-recorded. It is a clever setup for the stage, which is a sparsely decorated space that evokes some dark glamour but also functions as a blank canvas that works with very little transition.
The props and costuming are cleverly accomplished, showcasing the unfortunate polyester and platforms that dominated late ‘90s fashion and pulling off recreations of movie details, like Kathryn’s cocaine cross.
All told, Cruel Intentions is a fast, fun night at the theater that is a must-see for anyone hungry for a little bit of ‘90s nostalgia and a lot of laughs. The cast is having a blast, and it’s infectious — just don’t blame them too much when you can’t stop singing the songs days later.