‘Cruel Intentions The ‘90s Musical’ review: Not much has changed since 1999, hey?

‘Cruel Intentions The ‘90s Musical’ review: Not much has changed since 1999, hey?

Cruel Intentions: The 90's Musical
Words by Bryget Chrisfield

Following seasons across the US and UK, 'Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical' finally makes its Australian premiere in Melbourne and it’s just the ticket.

Described by producer David Venn as “a love letter to the film”, Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical brings this light-hearted but cautionary tale to life. Sex, manipulation, intrigue – it’s all here in abundance, punctuated by hit songs collated from an era where bubblegum pop nuzzled against grunge in the global charts. And there’s even a live band up on stage, although musicians are largely obscured by James Browne’s effective, constantly evolving set, which evokes the facades of Manhattan buildings and is often overlaid with visuals of song lyrics being scrawled as they’re sung.

The film version of Cruel Intentions is a modern retelling of the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons – starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman and John Malkovich – which was based on Christopher Hampton’s play Les Liaisons dangereuses (adapted from the 1782 literary classic of the same name by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos).

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While Dangerous Liaisons was set in pre-revolution Paris, Cruel Intentions transfers the action to Manhattan’s Upper East Side where a group of snooty private school-attending teenagers, representing various stages of sexual awakening, basically run amok while their rich parents neglect them (kind of like The OC, really).

The Cruel Intentions plot follows two charming-but-twisted step-siblings (Kathryn Merteuil, brilliantly played by Kirby Burgess, and Sebastian Valmont, portrayed by the charismatic Drew West) who make a bet: if Sebastian can deflower their incoming headmaster’s daughter Annette Hargrove, Kathryn will root him; the sexual tension between the lustful step-siblings (somewhat disturbingly, even though we realise they’re not actually related by blood) sizzles throughout. 

In addition to songs from the film’s soundtrack, such as The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony and Colorblind by Counting Crows, this musical adaptation incorporates many more ‘90s classics by the likes of *NSYNC, Britney Spears, No Doubt, TLC, Jewel, Boyz II Men and Christina Aguilera – all reinvented by the fabulous live band (guitarist opening Act Two playing guitar behind your head – we see you!). A couple of genius mash-ups we didn’t realise we needed in our lives – including Lovefool/Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Bitch/Losing My Religion – also enliven this production.

Some of these ‘90s hits are repurposed in order to drive Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical’s plot and assist character development. At the start of Act Two, when music teacher Ronald Clifford and Mrs Caldwell (ably played by Rishab Kern and Fem Belling respectively) perform No Scrubs, the ‘whiteness’ of this mum character busting out TLC lyrics is emphasised to hilarious effect. Another highlight moment is served courtesy of Kern’s delivery of his character’s observation: “Clearly there’s some fucked-up shit going on in this house” – could’ve been hammed-up, but instead it hits perfectly and the audience guffaws.

Opening night’s standout performance comes from Euan Fistrovic Doidge as Blaine Tuttle – we simply can’t drag our eyes away from him whenever he’s on stage. Standing out anyway thanks to his so-‘90s platinum-blond dye job, Doidge channels a boy band member with an irresistible knowing wink that also somehow honours the tradition and seems totally legit. His foil, Joseph Spanti as closeted gay footballer Greg McConnell, is also a delight to watch and we totally look forward to their scenes throughout. Francine Cain also shines brightly, bringing likability to the corruptible Cecile Caldwell.

Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical – created by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and Roger Kumble (the film’s screenwriter and director) – is not just a nostalgic celebration of the era’s camp melodrama, cringeworthy fashion choices and hair don’ts, this stage adaptation also invites audience members to reevaluate the movie’s themes of consent and responsibility, sexual inequity and slut shaming through a 2022 lens.

Kathryn Merteuil: “Do you think I relish the fact that I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24-seven just to be considered a ‘lady’? I’m the Marcia Fucking Brady of the Upper East Side and sometimes I want to kill myself.”

Not much has changed since 1999, hey?

Witnessing the action unfold while recognising song intros – and clocking how cleverly these classic ‘90s hits are woven in throughout – also leads to many amusing ‘I see what you did there’ moments: Sixpence None The Richer’s ‘Kiss Me’ accompanying the girl-on-girl kissing scene is a stroke of brilliance.

In 2020, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair took home the Legendary Lip Lock award at MTV’s Film & TV Awards: Greatest Of All Time edition for their infamous pash in Cruel Intentions and tonight we note with glee that the shock value of same-sex kissing scenes has diminished considerably since the cult film’s release back in 1999.

Catch Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical at the Athenaeum Theatre until 25 June. Buy tickets here.