Review by Daz Gale
If there are two things that are universally loved by musical theatre fans it is shows that are adapted from iconic movies and jukebox musicals. Well, perhaps not, but I will defend the existence of both of those while there is still breath in my body. True, not all of them land successfully and some can be dogged with questionable writing, but that can be true for all types of theatre. In a year where a fair few of each are set to open, the first big hitter is Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, bringing new musical theatre back to The Other Palace. While the movie is a cult classic, would this be able to appeal to both lovers of that as well as a new generation? That’s the intention, at least.
Cruel Intentions is based on the 1999 movie starring that vampire slayer herself Sarah-Michelle Gellar (who gets a surprise connection to this in an inspired preshow message). The musical adaptation premiered in Los Angeles in 2015, heading off-Broadway in 2017 and making its UK debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. It has never made it to London though… until now, that is. A modern-day telling of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it sees step-siblings Sebastian and Kathryn placing a bet on if he can take the virginity of the new headmaster’s daughter. As the pair scheme, they find unexpected obstacles as things don’t go the way they plan.
The story is given a new take from Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and the writer of the original movie, Roger Kumble. In doing so, they take the essence of the story, being sure to retain the key moments of the film that has made it such a cult classic. Where they strike gold, though, is in their ability to poke fun at the source material. At no point do they attempt to play the story completely seriously with a laugh at every corner. This proves to be a masterstroke as they manage to take a well-loved piece of property and turn it into something immensely fun, all the while never devaluing the movie. Cruel Intentions is a show whose only mission is to wow, thrill and entertain audiences and they have no problem in delivering that through this note-perfect writing.
Where this show is subtitled The 90’s Musical, you might get an idea of where this is going music wise. The classic songbook that was the 1990s make up the story with a diverse, eclectic and unexpected range of memorable songs. Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Boyz II Men, Natalie Imbruglia, R.E.M, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Verve, The Cardigans and The Spice Girls are just some of the artists whose songs are used to tell the story with a new twist… and that’s barely scratching the surface. Reminiscent of &Juliet, these songs are inserted in such an effortless way that manages to be simultaneously fantastically clever and brilliantly stupid (in the best possible way).
‘Genie In A Bottle’ and ‘Kiss Me’ were early examples of how these songs can be used to tell the story with their tongue placed firmly in their cheek with ‘No Scrubs’ among the more ridiculous moments (again, in a good way) and the use of ‘The Sign’ providing the biggest laugh of the evening. Also look out for the heartfelt break up scene using N Sync’s ‘Bye Bye Bye’. The creators of this show know what they have being able to use all of these songs and have so much fun in inserting them into the story, you can’t help but have fun with them in turn.
Jonathan O’Boyle’s fabulous direction makes full use of the intimate stage that is the main space at The Other Palace to create a production feeling far grander than the stage it is on, similar to how Heathers did before it. With inspired use of a revolve and grand, exaggerated gestures from our cast of wonderful characters, the direction ties in perfectly with the writing (other shows, take note) to create a cohesive, well-rounded and consistently entertaining production. Polly Sullivan’s set and costume design provides a great aesthetic for this direction with strong lighting from Nick Richings. It is Gary Lloyd’s choreography which really brings the show to life with playful routines taking these already familiar musical numbers and bringing something new while oddly familiar with them.
It’s fair to say Cruel Intentions is a show which ticks all the boxes production wise, so it’s fitting that the cast all excel in their roles as well. Daniel Bravo is cool, calculated and charismatic as he commands the stage as Sebastian Valmont. With a frosty exterior that gradually ebbs away, Daniel always delights with his choices in an over-the-top but appropriate performance, ensuring a musical highlight with an initially acapella performance of ‘Iris’. Abbie Budden gives a sweet and understated performance as Annette Hargrove, displaying a great chemistry with Daniel to watch their journeys meet in the middle as she grows in confidence. Rose Galbrath provides some of the grander moments as former innocent Cecile Caldwell, especially coming to life with her inspired musical moments, in particular an especially rousing ‘I’ll Make Love To You’.
Barney Wilkinson and Josh Barnett make a formidable double act as secret lovers Greg McConnell and Blaine Tuttle with their larger than life performances leading to some of the most crowd-pleasing moments, particularly their take on underrated Britney classic ‘Sometimes’ and the very recently added Spice Girls classic. The fact that they both are blessed with outrageously amazing vocals only adds to the success of these characterisations. Jess Buckby dominates with her brief stage time in dual roles, but truly excels as Bunny Caldwell,with a take on a TLC classic you never could have expected.
The standout performance of the night, however, goes to Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky in her scene-stealing turn as Kathryn Merteuil. With an unmatched confidence and the ability to pull focus with just the slightest of expressions, Rhianne-Louise taps into the cunning and scheming nature of Kathryn flawlessly, with a stunning vocal ability that threatens to bring the house down.
My only mild criticism is the curtain call could be modified with the “Cruel megamix” turning out to be two songs mixed into a single minute. In a show that has had us enraptured for two hours, it deserves a more prolonged finale in an audience that wants to celebrate the marvellous musical they have just witnessed. Even so, that is nowhere near enough to detract from what is, on paper, the perfect show… for me, at least – and I have been notoriously difficult to please so far this year.
On paper, perhaps Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical shouldn’t work. If you like your musicals to be serious and miserable, this is not the show for you. However, if you want to let your hair down and immerse yourself in a couple of hours of camp comedy, unashamed silliness, and pure talent, you will be living for every single minute of this exceptional show. Even though I am a lover of the original movie and a 1990s music obsessive, I didn’t think this show would land with me as much as it did. It’s camp, it’s energetic and it’s everything I ever wanted it to be and more. Where it may have big shoes to fill, following in the footsteps of previous long-runner Heathers, it does that effortlessly in a show that is bound to appeal to fans of that show as well as Six. In what has been a very dry January, Cruel Intentions really is the tonic we all need.
Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical plays at The Other Palace until 14th April. Tickets from https://theotherpalace.co.uk/
Photos by Pamela Raith