Review: Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical (David Venn Enterprises)

The cast of Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, photographed by Nicole Cleary.

Content note: Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical includes strobe lighting, haze, smoke, coarse language, and adult themes. Patrons must be 16 years or older to attend, and patrons under 18 years of age must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

A jukebox musical packed with nostalgic 90’s hits, Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical showcased some formidable Australian talent and captured all of the key moments of the 1999 film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Philippe, Reese Witherspoon, and Selma Blair.

Producer David Venn described the musical as “a love letter to the film” – beginning its life as an unauthorised fan-made creation by Jordan Ross and Lindsey Rosin in 2015, Cruel Intentions writer and director Roger Kumble later co-wrote the book for Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2017. This Australian production, directed by Alister Smith, features an all-Australian cast of singers, dancers, and actors.

Drew Weston as Sebastian Valmont, with ensemble. Photographed by Nicole Cleary.

Cruel Intentions was itself an adaptation of the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, set among wealthy teenagers in Manhattan’s Upper East Side rather than the French aristocracy. Manipulative step-siblings Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont make a wager – Sebastian will sleep with the new headmaster’s daughter, the virtuous and chaste Annette Hargrove, before the summer is over. If he fails, Kathryn will take his prized possession, a vintage Jaguar roadster. If he succeeds, Kathryn will sleep with him. Caught in the middle of all this scheming is Cecile, who Kathryn is using to exact revenge on an ex-boyfriend, and a cast of other characters who might become collateral damage. Driven by passion and spite, Kathryn and Sebastian set out to destroy an innocent girl, and anyone who gets in their way. Amidst the sex, secrets, and manipulation, the story is about a fight for status, and the value of a reputation.

Kirby Burgess as Kathryn Merteuil, with ensemble. Photographed by Nicole Cleary.

A live band, led by Music Director Daniel Puckey, played the musical’s twenty-one songs onstage, with three of the musicians raised on a platform above the stage and the drum kit at stage level. Huge, moveable set pieces (and a very versatile couch) designed by James Browne and projections designed by Craig Wilkinson worked in conjunction with lighting design by Declan O’Neill to effectively set and change the scene, as well as adding to the emotion and action unfolding onstage. A few elements didn’t fully translate from film to stage – for example, the iconic final scene, set to The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony, attempted to vocalise the disgust of Kathryn’s peers as they read Sebastian’s journal; however, this was ultimately less effective and could have been achieved purely choreographically.

Francine Cain as Cecile Caldwell (centre). Photographed by Nicole Cleary.

Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical was bursting with recognisable music from the era, although the song choice didn’t always lyrically align with the themes being explored. The musical, in carefully replicating the scenes from the film, retained all of the same issues – the casual homophobia was particularly jarring, and could have been toned down in certain moments without impacting the plot. However, attempts had obviously been made to soften both the homophobia and racism from the film with humour, staging, and music.

Kirby Burgess as Kathryn Merteuil. Photographed by Nicole Cleary.

Kirby Burgess was sensational in the role of Kathryn Merteuil, a true triple threat who delivered exceptional acting, dance, and vocal performances. Drew Weston was obnoxiously charming as Sebastian Valmont, and a strong vocalist, and Francine Cain had excellent physical comedy and comedic timing in the role of Cecile. The ensemble moved sets and props seamlessly between scenes and performed Freya List’s choreography with a cohesion and energy that was impressive, given the shallow stage area created by the band setup. The entire performance had a strong energy – a section of the opening night audience was sufficiently moved to burst into a singalong for the Goo Goo Dolls’ hit Iris.

Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical captured all the drama, comedy, and momentum of a late 90’s movie, featuring neon-bright staging and outstanding performances by a talented cast.

Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical will play at the Fortitude Music Hall, Fortitude Valley, from 29 July – 7 August 2022.

For ticketing and further information, visit the Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical website

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