The jukebox musical, which has been in existence since at least the 1970s, has gotten increasingly popular over the years. There’s been an explosion of them in the 21st century, with productions focused on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons (Jersey Boys), 1980s glam metal (Rock of Ages), and Carole King (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) among the most popular ones.
Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical — being presented by Dallas' AT&T Performing Arts Center — is a double dose of nostalgia, as it pays homage to not only the 1999 cult film but also the earworm songs that remain stuck in the heads of anyone who was in high school or college during the 1990s. Written by Roger Kumble, the film’s writer, alongside Jordan Ross and Lindsey Rosin, the production is pure camp from minute one.
Sebastian Valmont (Jeffrey Kringer) and Kathryn Merteuil (Taylor Pearlstein) are step-siblings in high-society New York who delight in torturing their fellow high school students, especially when it comes to sexual exploits. When Annette Hargrove (Betsy Stewart), a self-proclaimed virgin, moves to town, Sebastian and Kathryn make a deliciously nasty bet over whether Sebastian can bed Annette.
The musical tells essentially the same story as the film, only with cover versions of ‘90s songs inserted to dictate the mood of various scenes. Surprisingly, most of the songs work quite well, with the beginning of each tune greeted with cheers of recognition from the audience and gales of laughter at the cleverness of their inclusion.
The relationship between the out-and-proud Blaine Tuttle (David Wright) and closeted jock Greg McConnell (John Battagliese) is told through boy band songs like the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” and *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye.” Kathryn describes herself via Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and, naturally, “Bitch” by Meredith Brooks. And Cecile Caldwell (Brooke Singer) goes through a sexual evolution via Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” and an energetic version of Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.”
The soundtrack does contain a few clunkers, though. Placebo’s “Every You, Every Me” is the first big song in the show, but the tune from the relatively obscure British group elicits a collective shrug despite some on-point lyrics. TLC’s “No Scrubs” is a great song, but its usage in scenes with racist undertones doesn’t sit well given that it’s one of only two songs by African-American artists in the musical.
The plain set design by Jason Sherwood, rudimentary choreography by Jennifer Weber, and just plain bad wigs by Dave Bova often make the production feel like poorly-done community theater, but the lack of polish might just be the point. Nearly everything in the musical is over-the-top, so everyone involved seems to revel in making the production as campy as possible.
The touring cast is notable in how much the leads look like their film counterparts. Kringer, Pearlstein, and Stewart are reasonable facsimiles of Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Reese Witherspoon, respectively, and they each do well in the acting department as well. Other standouts include Wright and especially Singer, who goes for the gusto in each of her scenes.
One would imagine that Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical works best for those who were immersed in pop culture in the 1990s (aka anyone in the 35-50 age range), but the commitment of the cast to the concept of the show should make it enjoyable no matter your age.
Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical plays at the Wyly Theatre in Dallas through May 26.