There’s something about the 90s that just won’t go away, and maybe we never want them to. The “Cruel Intentions” musical is now in its third incarnation, this time downtown in the Village at (le) poisson rouge. It opened on Monday, December 11th in a limited engagement running through early 2018. The musical is based on the 1999 movie starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, and Selma Blair which was inspired by the 1782 French novel Dangerous Liaisons. Back in the 90s the film somehow managed to adapt the pre-French Revolution novel of sexual scheming and excess into the world of New York City teenagers at an elite high school. Despite the complete lack of parallels and confusing plot of the source material, it completely worked–and now it works again as a musical. The musical was adapted by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin, and Roger Krumble and is directed by Lindsey Rosin.
The musical follows step-siblings Sebastian (Constantine Rousouli) and Kathryn (Lauren Zakrin) as they make wagers about if Sebastian can sleep with Cecile (Jessie Shelton), the new girl at school, and Annette (Carrie St. Louis), the headmaster’s virginal daughter. To complicate the mix, we have the gay friend Blaine (Alex Boniello), his secret football-playing boyfriend Greg (Brian Muller), Cecile’s black music teacher Donald (Matthew Griffin), and her uptight racist mother (Patricia Richardson). Love triangles abound as Donald likes Cecile who likes Sebastian who likes Annette, not to mention the intense and almost incestuous sexual attraction between step-siblings Sebastian and Kathryn. Throughout the show, it’s hard to decide who has all the power and who is manipulating whom, but in the end, both of the evil step-siblings get punishments in one form or another.
The most defining part of the musical by far is the score. The show is a jukebox musical comprised entirely of 90s songs, including hits you thought you had forgotten like “I Saw the Sign,” “I’m Only Happen When it Rains,” “Bittersweet Symphony,” “Sex and Candy,” “Sunday Morning,” “So Kiss Me,” and more. The musical has (overly) dramatic scenes of plot adapted from the movie, and then the characters randomly burst into a 90s song. At times this can seem ridiculous, but it is when the actors play into the comedic ridiculousness of the situation that the songs work best. Boniello, Muller, Shelton, and St. Louis were best at this, almost winking at the audience every time they began to sing another absurd song.
In a 90s nostalgia jukebox musical, harnessing the comedy is essential. Perhaps this is what made the performances of the leading pair unsuccessful. Both Rousouli and Zakrin seemed too invested in the seriousness and dramatics of their characters to understand that the musical is mostly an extended piece of sketch comedy with great (bad?) songs. The over-acting by the leads made this incarnation slightly less enjoyable than the previous ones, although this could have been caused by the absence of Jenn Damiano and Katie Stevens, who had both previously played Kathryn with much more success than Zakrin.
That being said, it is worth noting that the vocals in the production were extraordinary, with each cast members belting out song after song. When they were good, the songs were the best part of the musical, since the audience got to jam to their old favorite while watching a talented singer completely nail the song, sometimes even with cheesy choreography (by Jennifer Weber). Equally enjoyable were the costumes (styled by Tilly Grimes) which were inspired by the movie and contained a corset, a rosary, a plaid miniskirt, some tie-over sweaters, and a sea of matching blazers.
“Cruel Intentions: The Musical” is not high art, but it is fun, sexy, and seductive. For what it is–a 90s jukebox nostalgia musical comedy–it is a great time and certainly worth the trip for a night of (dinner) theater downtown. What’s more, this musical, despite its lack of seriousness or budget, managed to absolutely surpasses the recent Broadway production of its distant cousin “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”