BWW Review: The National Tour of CRUEL INTENTIONS Seduces and Thrills at the Wyly Theatre
My fellow millennials and I are now at the age where our '90s upbringing has finally come back to hit us in our sense of nostalgia like a slap bracelet to the wrist. The Spice Girls are going on tour in the UK, the Backstreet Boys are still performing to sold-out stadiums across the country, and audiences are now being subjected to remake after remake of TV shows and movies such as The Lion King, Aladdin, DuckTales, and Beverly Hills 90210. For better or worse, as we age further into adulthood, we find ourselves reaching further back into our adolescence for a sense of joy and excitement.
One of the better options for reliving this excitement for yourself is the current touring production of CRUEL INTENTIONS: The '90s Musical, now playing at the Wyly Theatre through May 26. With its electrifying mix of sexual intrigue, tongue-in-cheek humor, and a song list better than that of any senior prom's, CRUEL INTENTIONS gleefully throws audiences back into the chaos of high school while reminding them just how far we've come from the age of Nokia cellphones and AOL.
The musical largely follows the plot of the 1999 movie of the same name, starring teen heartthrobs Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. In the elite neighborhood of Manhattan's Upper East Side, bored stepsiblings Sebastian and Kathryn make a wager to pass their summer vacation. If Sebastian can seduce their school's newest student, the virginal Anette, Kathryn will give her stepbrother "anything" he wants, including herself. Meanwhile, Kathryn-feeling jilted after a bad break-up-attempts to ruin the reputation of her ex's new girlfriend, the awkward and inexperienced Cecile. Set to a score straight out of the '90s-including songs such as "Genie in a Bottle," "Kiss Me," and of course "Bittersweet Symphony"-the show revels in the bad behavior of its characters while hilariously mocking the culture that defined the decade.
Under the tour direction of Kenneth Ferrone, the musical moves seamlessly from scene to scene, transitioning from moments of deep emotion to high energy without disrupting the flow of the show. More importantly, the scenes themselves are infused with such a palpable energy that the cast could just as easily feed off of the emotions of one another rather than the cheers and screams from the audience (though I'm sure those reactions are much appreciated). Jennifer Weber's choreography helps keep the momentum going in these moments and in the production's many musical numbers. Weber tasks the cast with a nice array of styles and movements, having them perform small acrobatic feats in some numbers while also borrowing iconic moves from music videos we grew up watching on MTV. These creative choices create an aesthetic that is at once deeply familiar and thrillingly new.
The cast is likewise tasked with taking iconic performances from the movie and making them their own, and they largely succeed. Brooke Singer plays up Cecile's youthful ignorance and awkwardness, making her the show's biggest source of laugh-out-loud comedic relief. Like a kid who's had too many Ring Pops, she excitedly romps across the stage in well-sung numbers such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "I'll Make Love to You." While the performance is funny, it is a different kind of energy from that of her castmates, and the humor may take some getting used to after audiences experience the subtler comedy of some of the other actors.
Taylor Pearlstein perfects this subtlety in her role as Kathryn, armed with a chillingly charming smile that just barely hides the character's explosive sexuality. As despicable as Kathryn may be, Pearlstein turns her into a character that audiences can't help but be captivated by, delivering her lines with the intoxicating sweetness of a Long Island iced tea. If her attitude weren't enough to draw you in, Pearlstein's vocals utterly impress, ranging from somber low notes to ecstatically high belts, and her "soliloquy" in the second act provides an encore of some of her best-performed songs, including "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Bitch."
As funny as the show is, though, it's not without its fair share of heart and serious moments, especially those shared between Sebastian and Annette as the former realizes he might be falling in love with his prey after all. Betsy Stewart upends any expectations of who the religious Annette should be, stating her convictions with confident power rather than mere naivety. Stewart's assuredness prevents Annette from becoming just another victim to Sebastian's machinations, and-when she decides she might be falling for him after all-there is no doubt that this is a choice she has made for herself. Perhaps this is why her character gets some of the most iconic girl power ballads from the decade, including a triumphantly cocky performance of "Just a Girl."
Jeffrey Kringer might very well outshine Ryan Phillippe in the role of Sebastian, strutting across the stage with an energetic charisma and muscled physique that makes it no wonder that the character is a high school Casanova (don't worry: the musical recreates the film's infamous pool scene). Kringer's funniest lines are delivered with a wry smile and dry humor, but his performance especially shines in the show's second act as developments reveal a more complicated personality than even he believed he had. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it does no good to spoil how these moments play out, but Kringer's heartfelt renditions of "Iris" and "Colorblind" should be enough to convince audiences to buy tickets.
While the four leads are highly talented, the entire ten-person ensemble performs with the same level of energy and drive whether they're acting as backup singers or their own fully-formed characters. David Wright gives a standout performance as Blaine, the show's only openly gay character, who fluidly leaps and slinks between his costars while belting out seemingly impossibly high notes to his doting but closeted lover, Greg, charmingly played by John Battagliese with great comedic timing. Under the music direction of Dan Garmon, the cast sounds exceptional as a whole as well as individually, bringing a harmonic and dynamic nuance to numbers that have been familiar to audiences for over twenty years. The musical arrangement of the first act finale, a mash-up of at least five different numbers so far as I could tell, is impressively inventive and exciting enough to leave the crowd hungry for more.
All in all, CRUEL INTENTIONS is a fun and sexy blast of nostalgia, a delightfully decadent trip back to a time in our lives when a break-up seemed like the worst catastrophe in the world and handwritten notes passed from person to person (almost) as fast as instant messaging. Even if your summer won't be as eventful as Sebastian's, this show will give you an excellent start.