By Colin Douglas
If theatergoers are looking for high art, they should probably search elsewhere. Filled with camp comedy, come-hither characters and sexy setups, Broadway in Chicago’s Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and Roger Kumble is based on Kumble’s own popular 1999 movie. In fact, the musical replicates the hit film, while also parodying it. Kumble’s screenplay was a clever, contemporary adaptation of the 1782 French novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was adapted into a play by Christopher Hampton.
This musical, like the cult film, is the perfect guilty pleasure. Playing a limited off-Broadway engagement in 2017, and extended twice into last year, the show proved both a popular and a critical success. It takes a story about seduction, revenge and malice between nasty, wealthy aristocrats living in 18th century France, and retells it using a clique of self-entitled high school students attending a prestigious Manhattan prep school during the 1990’s. In this romantic teen drama, amoral step-siblings Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont, who share a creepy incestuous relationship, decide to make a bet.
Kathryn wants revenge on her ex-lover, Court. She tries to convince her stepbrother to seduce the naive, somewhat dorky Cecile, with whom Court is now dating. Sebastian refuses, telling Kathryn that he’s set his sights on bedding Annette, the new headmaster’s virginal daughter. Kathryn wagers that if Sebastian fails in his sexual conquest of Annette, she’ll get possession of her stepbrother’s prized, vintage sports car; if Sebastian’s successful in seducing Annette, he’ll finally be allowed to have his way, enjoying a night of unbridled carnal lust with his stepsister.
The musical has several other subplots. One of them focuses on Blaine, Sebastian’s out-and-proud gay friend, and his hidden, sexual relationship with Greg, a handsome, closeted football player. Sebastian blackmails Greg into convincing his good friend Annette to date Sebastian. There’s also a romance between Cecile and her African American music tutor, which her snobby mother, Bunny Caldwell, is firmly against. Since Mrs. Caldwell also expressed a low opinion of Sebastian, the young man decides to go ahead and carry out Kathryn’s wishes. He begins enticing Cecile until she succumbs to his sexual advances. Details of his escapades are kept in a journal. But, compounded by lies and deceit, when his diary falls into the wrong hands, both Sebastian and Kathryn are punished for the evil deeds they aimed at those around them.
What categorically clinches this musical as a guilty pleasure is it’s score of powerhouse ballads and rockin’ dance hits from the 90’s. Hit songs include “Bittersweet Symphony,” “No Scrubs,” “Kiss Me,” “Bye Bye Bye” and “Genie in a Bottle,” along with sixteen other blasts from the past. The cast, an especially excellent ensemble of talented singing and dancing actors, humorously burst into song, often without any warning. Their individual and collective renditions of hits like “Sex and Candy,” “Losing My Religion” and “I Want It That Way” recall the original 90’s singing stars and boy bands who made the songs famous. The music is often accompanied by some boisterously athletic and synchronized dance moves, evocative of groups like the Backstreet Boys, NSYNC and TLC. The dance steps come courtesy of Choreographer Jennifer Weber with sharp musical direction and backstage accompaniment provided by Dan Garmon and his three-member band. The entire production is expertly directed by Lindsey Rosin.
This cast impresses with spot-on portrayals of Kumble’s characters, as well as their over-the-top parodies of the film’s cast. In the role made famous by Sarah Michelle Gellar, gorgeous, lithe Taylor Pearlstein is wonderfully nasty and naughty as Kathryn. She shares her devilish dealings with boyishly handsome Jeffrey Kringer, as Sebastian, who looks remarkably like the film’s Ryan Phillippe. Both actors are terrific singers and dancers, in addition to expertly playing two of the most unlikable antiheroes in theatre history.
Lovely Betsy Stewart, a dead-ringer for the movie’s Reese Witherspoon, is sweet, yet high-spirited and stalwart as Annette. Audiences might recall Stewart in the Marriott Theatre’s productions of October Sky, Godspell and Spring Awakening. Brooke Singer practically steals the show as the callow and clueless Cecile. Sometimes reminiscent of Molly Shannon’s spastic “Superstar” character on SNL, Mary Katherine Gallagher, Singer quickly becomes the audience’s favorite character. Dara Orland nicely portrays Bunny Caldwell, Cecile’s snobby mother, and Richard Crandle is appealing and affectionate as her music instructor, Ronald.
As Blaine, David Wright, is a fountain of flamboyant attitude and pop posturing. Serving as the production’s dance captain, he may be remembered by Chicago audiences who enjoyed his performance in Newsies, at the Marriott Theatre. As his secret boyfriend, Greg, good-looking John Battagliese is fabulous. Hilariously switching between being a macho jock and a fawning queen, this outstanding singer/dancer is great in this role.
Overflowing with 90’s nostalgia and oozing with sex, this high octane musical is anything but subtle. Its comedy is campy and its story assaults the senses, taking no prisoners. This production explodes with powerful voices and bristles with athletic choreography. The cast features a stand-out company of strong, triple-threats who obviously understand their craft. Costumed by Tilly Grimes, she creates an homage to both the Kumble film and the era of AOL, George Bush and Madonna. She outfits her actors in navy blue blazers, tiny plaid schoolgirl uniforms, contrasted by Katherine’s black satin bustier and an oversized crucifix. The infectious jukebox score, which is the real star of this musical, features 21 nostalgic hits from the 1990’s that infuse this story of romance, rancor and revenge.
High art, this isn’t. But this may be the best show to play the Broadway Playhouse in a long time.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Cruel Intentions: the 90s Musical” through April 14 at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 17 E. Chestnut Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.