Review by Suzanne Tate
I was quite impressed with the movie Cruel Intentions when it was released in 1999. It was a little edgy, well-acted, and despite being a modernised version of ‘Dangerous Liason’s’, it felt fresh and original. Producer David Venn claims that the movie “screamed to become a musical”, but I have to disagree. With some notable exceptions, mainly in recent times, the majority of musicals tend to be upbeat, with everyone living happily ever after. So I have been curious and excited to see how the musical version would come together.
Director Alister Smith describes the musical as a “celebration of the 90s; it’s music, it’s fashion, it’s camp melodrama and questionable hair choices”. Certainly, the music selected to become part of the musical contains many iconic 90s tunes, including hits such as ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘Bye Bye Bye’, ‘The Sign’ and ‘Just a Girl’. For some characters, such as Kathryn Merteuil, played by Kirby Burgess, the song brought extra dimension and depth to characters that could otherwise be seen as two-dimensional. The inclusion of songs such as ‘Only Happy When it Rains’ and ‘Bitch’ allowed Burgess to showcase additional facets of the character; emotions that remained tightly constrained in the film. Her vocal performance was powerful, tackling the range of songs, from ‘Genie in a Bottle’ to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Losing my Religion’ confidently. Her performance was definitely a stand-out, and she never put a note, or a foot, wrong. For other characters, such as Annette Hargrove, played by Kelsey Halge in her debut professional role, some of the song choices and choreography seemed a bit out of character. ‘I’m just a Girl’, for instance, created confusion rather than clarity in regard to the audience’s interpretation of the character. Halge did an excellent job as Annette, although the musical numbers did not give her as many opportunities to vocally shine as some of the other roles.
While some of the numbers fit neatly into the story, I sometimes found the lack of synchronicity between the plot and the lyrics frustrating. I find this is often an issue with Jukebox musicals, but I did thoroughly enjoy the musical the blast from the past, as the majority of the numbers are very well-known hits from my twenties.
Drew Weston did an excellent job in the role of Sebastian Valmont, although it took me awhile to accept him as Sebastian, due to his age and appearance – he looked more like a secret-service agent in the opening number than a high school student. He gave a very convincing performance however, demonstrating Sebastian’s changing priorities and developing emotions throughout the show, and with an impressive vocal performance.
Upon watching a few clips of the movie before writing this review, I found it interesting that the script appears to match the film word-for-word, but some of the delivery is very different. The addition of hit music and dynamic choreography is one way the creators Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and Roger Kumble have brought a new slant to the show, and another is how certain characters have been portrayed. I must admit that I felt that the central character of Cecile Caldwell, portrayed by Sarah Krndija, was exaggerated to the point of caricature. Krndija did an excellent job with what was a challenging role, portraying Cecille with exuberance and great comedic timing. But the character itself has gone from one who is naiive and unpolished, and deserving of our sympathy, to one who is crass, and played purely for laughs. The characters of flamboyant homosexual Blaine Tuttle and closeted footballer Greg McConnell, played by Ross Chisari and Joseph Spanti respectively, were also shallow caricatures. But this interpretation holds true from the movie, where they were ancillary characters. In the musical the exaggerated personalities provide some needed humour in what is basically quite a dark story, but I don’t think the writers needed to make Cecille quite so laughable.
The set, designed by James Browne, and Lighting, designed by Declan O’Niell worked together seamlessly to provide context very effectively for the story in what is quite a small space. Rather than trying to replicate the varied film locations, the designers have taken a more conceptual approach, with lyrics, script and Sebastian’s journal text appearing on grand walls filled with empty frames. Lighting and projection was also used very effectively to portray the subway and busy road in key scenes.
The costumes, designed by Isaac Lummis were representational of the 90s era but lacked some continuity. Mrs Caldwell, played by Fem Belling, was dressed in mismatched outfits that Christine Baranski’s Bunny Caldwell from the film would not have been seen dead in. It also seemed odd to dress the ensemble in school uniforms for every scene, despite the fact that the entire story takes place before school resumes for the year. In many scenes they are intended to be invisible, moving the set and not interacting with the story, and the uniforms make it hard to ignore them. In other scenes, such as at the train station, they represent ordinary passers-by. At no time, until the finale are the uniforms relevant to the story. The costumes for Kathryn and Sebastian however fit the characters perfectly.
Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical is a high energy, enjoyable performance that maintains momentum, keeping your attention from start to finish. It is an interesting interpretation of the iconic film, continuing an evolution that has gone from the original French novel written in 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses, to a play in 1985, the film Dangerous Liasons in1988, and the movie Cruel Intentions in 1999. The addition of a wide range of 90s popular music has opened up a new perspective that makes watching it a fresh new experience, with a touch of nostalgia and the cast present a consistently high quality performance for a great night out.
Cruel Intentions is now playing at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District