Cruel Intentions, the 90s Musical is a Kokandy production, which is generally about all I need to know to expect something wonderful. This one certainly didn’t disappoint: full of fun choreography, excellent acting, and fabulous singing, it is so good it made me want to watch the movie it is based on (which I somehow have never done)…but I expect the movie will come up short compared to the entertaining R-rated treasure now onstage at Chopin Theatre.
The movie, for those who are unfamiliar (like me) is about two stepsibling prep school students who are so sociopathic that they can only get their kicks from messing with the lives of others. In this specific case, Kathryn (Maddison Denault) and Sebastian (David Moreland) set their sights on incoming freshman Annette Hargrove (Kelcy Taylor), the chaste and religious daughter of the school’s new headmaster. Kathryn, self-proclaimed as “the Marcia F–ing Brady of the upper east side,” bets Sebastian (who is nothing like Greg, BTW) that he can’t get the new girl to have sex with him. Sebastian, who has bedded just about every girl at the school and even keeps a journal about it, bets his prized car. (To give you a sense of the decadence and depravity of these two, Kathryn’s ante is the thing she says her brother wants most in the world: to have sex with her.)
Yes, this is definitely not a musical to take children to unless you’re in the mood to answer lots of questions, even though the older ones might enjoy the music. The songs are 90s classics, and they are carefully curated to allow them to further the plot and build the characters, which puts this show far ahead of most of its jukebox musical siblings. The humor, though, like the plot, is absolutely bawdy. (Intimacy Designer Kirsten Baity had their work cut out here.)
Denault and Moreland are perfect here portraying these wealthy, slimy, manipulative older teens. Their voices are also perfect: his rich and warm enough to attract his prey, hers as big and bold as the self-satisfied monster she actually is. In their world, someone like Annette is just begging to become a victim. Taylor’s voice is as sweet as her character, who is a truly nice person with surprising depth and insight: she recognizes Sebastian for the liar he is with no trouble at all. As he continues his pursuit, though—he certainly is not going to let his car go easily—a greater surprise happens: for the first time in his life, he actually falls in love.
Kathryn, meanwhile, is fairly busy pursuing a scheme of her own, wreaking her vengeance against the boy who dumped her, by having her brother seduce the girl that boy currently has his eyes set on: Cecile, a gawky girl whose very nature screams out “Innocence!” (Her reactions to various mentions of sexual activities are mostly some variation of “eww!”) Cecile is played with comic joy by Anabella Oddo, who uses both her voice and her lithe physicality to create this hilariously naïve young girl. (A scene in which Kathryn teaches her to French kiss—perfectly set to “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer—is indelibly embedded in my mind.)
Other key characters we get to know are Blaine (Josh Pablo Szabo) and Greg (Jimmy Romano), a gay couple though only one—Blaine—is out; Cecile’s overly controlling mother Bunny (Elizabeth Lesinski); and Ronald (Lucas Looch Johnson), the young man who is giving Cecile music lessons as they fall for each other. A talented ensemble rounds out the cast, doing energetic dance numbers choreographed by Laura Savage and filling in as miscellaneous students, etc.
Adrian Abel Azevedo’s strong hand as director guides this production, keeping it flowing smoothly and at exactly the right pace while making sure the characters are precisely as realistic—or not—as they need to be. (I wish I were a fly on the wall while he and Savage worked with Denault on her character, who is as extroverted as they come and a scene-stealer par excellence.) The only character I felt was way overdone was Bunny (through no fault of Leninski, who clearly worked as hard as anyone). Bunny comes across as a weirdly contradictory stereotype: she is ridiculously paranoid, prudish, and puritanical with her daughter, but gets to sing “No Scrubs” while engaging her id with chaotic dance moves.
“No Scrubs,” by the way, to me is the one song that just felt wedged in here, as if someone just liked it so much they had to shove it in even if it doesn’t fit. (For some reason, it is even reprised. Go figure.) Besides “Kiss Me,” some that worked brilliantly include Denault’s “I’m the Only One”; Taylor’s “Just a Girl”; Oddo’s “I Don’t Want To Wait” and her “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” duet with Johnson; Moreland and Taylor’s emotional take on “Torn,” as well as their individual performances of “Iris” and “Foolish Games”; Romano and Szabo dueting on “Bye Bye Bye” and “Sex and Candy”; and Denault’s perfect assimilation of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” along with her “Rose’s Turn”-like chaos-in-a-compilation number called “Kathryn’s Turn.” The entire company takes part in the perfect finale for this show: “Bittersweet Symphony.” The show’s creators (Roger Kumble, Lindsey Rosin, and Jordan Ross) did a wonderful job of matching songs to characters and moments, and Kokandy found the perfect cast to bring it home, using a solid band, G. “Max” Maxin IV’s lighting and Michael J. Patrick’s beautifully balanced sound to bring forth the booming rock and roll.
Kokandy has never been anything less than wonderful in any of their shows that I have ever seen. In fact, I am not sure I would even have been interested in this one except for their name on the production. I’m so glad I did see it. The creators and Azevedo have made it into something fun, compelling, utterly decadent, and truly memorable.
Tickets are available at Kokandy’s website for shows that run through August 7.