Music Theatre

Cruel Intentions the ’90s Musical review

A wild ride back to the heady, pre-woke 1990s, Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical is a salacious guilty pleasure that has all the makings of a cult classic.

With 1999 film Cruel Intentions already having done the heavy lifting of adapting Dangerous Liaisons for the preppy world of New York’s Upper East Side, the musical came to life in 2015, scoring success in an off-Broadway season in 2017. Whereas Clueless the Musical dismally failed under the tight control of its screenwriter (Amy Heckerling), Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical is brilliantly served by co-creators Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and screenwriter Roger Kumble, who clearly understand the form, function and fabulousness of stage musicals. 

As ticket prices for commercial musicals skyrocket, full credit goes to David Venn Enterprises for staging Australian professional premieres in original (ie non-franchised) productions at affordable prices. The company has quickly established themselves as strong supporters of diverse casting, and already have an excellent track record for unearthing exciting new talent. Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical is a perfect fit for the company, and for the Athenaeum Theatre, and is confidently produced on an impressively glossy scale. 

Building on the movie soundtrack, Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical incorporates a full jukebox (or Sony discman) of iconic ‘90s hits. Musical director Daniel Puckey leads three fellow musicians as they blast out hit after hit, from the cuteness of “Lovefool” and the infectious pop of “The Sign” to power ballads “Torn” and “I’m A Bitch, I’m A Lover.” Neatly chosen for their lyrical fit, the songs are greeted with the same laughs of recognition as those in Moulin Rouge, with particular joy greeting closeted jock Greg singing “Bye Bye Bye” and offended black musician Ronald launching into “No Scrubs.”

Director Alister Smith keeps energy characteristically high, ensuring storytelling is clear amidst the swift pace of the show. Despite the heightened nature of the highly sexualised characters, Smith grounds them in sufficient reality for their machinations to have an impact. The show recreates memorable moments from the film and pokes fun at the ‘90s and yet never tips over into parody, building to an affecting climax and raising thought-provoking questions about the misbalanced way society judges female behaviour. 

Freya List adds to the stage energy with witty, tightly rehearsed choreography. 

Clearly working in close collaboration, the scenic design of James Browne, video design of Craig Wilkinson and lighting design of Declan O’Neill combine for a dazzling and cleverly flexible stage picture. Performing almost as much choreography as the cast, tall mobile set pieces have embedded glowing LED strips around windows and frames, and capture the stream of projected animated images. Pre-social media, the images focus on the text of Valmont’s journal, along with clippings of photos with a teen magazine vibe. 

The attractive visual style is completed by the luscious purples and pinks of the costume design of Isaac Lummis. Known for his attention to period detail, Lummis treats the 1990s as if it were the 1890s, presenting a cavalcade of carefully chosen outfits that are deliciously cute and yet match Smith’s focus of keeping well clear of parody. Connecting the look of each character to their movie counterpart, the effect is completed with nifty wig design by Trent Whitmore. 

Kirby Burgess tears up the stage as Kathryn Mertreuil, singing up a storm as well as bringing a stirring undercurrent of humanity to a character who ostensibly has the cruellest intentions of them all. 

Displaying his buff physique (and cheeky assets) with justifiable pride, Drew Weston proves himself a killer leading man as Sebastian Valmont, delivering terrific pop rock vocals and deftly spinning a sympathetic side for a young man already in therapy for sex addiction at 18. 

In addition to successfully making the sexual attraction of step-siblings not seem icky, Burgess and Weston shine in conveying compelling character arcs, elevating the material beyond its feel good nature. 

Making an auspicious professional stage debut, Kelsey Halge captures the full Reese Witherspoon effect as virginal sweetheart Annette Hargrove, also making the role her own with a stirring vocal performance.

Accomplished performer Francine Cain confects another delightfully quirky character in Cecile Caldwell, an easily influenced teen who embraces her journey of sexual discovery with increasingly unbridled enthusiasm. Rishab Kern bolsters Ronald with a healthy sense of self confidence as the young musician encounters unchecked bigotry and sexual frustration. 

Euan Fistrovic Doidge is luxury casting as cocky gay teen Blaine, performing the role with strikingly smooth vocals and the slickest of dance moves. Blaine indulgently services football hero Greg, winningly played by Joseph Spanti, who scores cheers from the vocal audience as Greg helplessly gives himself over to Blaine’s attentions.

Fem Belling proves there are no small roles, bringing out the entitled boldness of brazen blonde Mrs Caldwell and scoring laughs of delight as she belts “Man! I Feel LIke A Woman!”.

Moments of ensemble singing are wonderfully strong, and yet overall the five ensemble members have precious little to do, save for rotating the sets into place. 

Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical is designed as a raucous and risqué night out, a show to be enjoyed with friends and a few drinks. On the presumption that the show catches on with the right audience, there are wild nights ahead as the show makes it way around Australia. 

Cruel Intentions the ’90s Musical plays at Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne until 25 June 2022. For tickets, click here.

Cruel Intentions the ‘90s Musical plays at State Theatre, Sydney from 30 June 2022;

Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane from 27 July 2022;

Regal Theatre, Perth from 24 August 2022;

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide from 8 September 2022;

Canberra Theatre, Canberra from 5 October 2022;

For tickets and full details, click here.

Photos: supplied

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