Maybe the process of aging blunts an appreciation of irony. Or maybe you just begin to hear things for what they really mean. A pal and I watched Cruel Intentions, the musical at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge based on the excellent 1999 movie written by Roger Kumble (one of the creators of the musical), and we smiled at some things and looked pained at others.
The smiling and pained expressions alternated so rapidly that our faces were human origami for the one hour forty minute duration of the show, itself derived from Les Liaisons Dangereuses and set on the privileged Upper East Side where the teens are horny, doing cocaine, and seeking their own kinds of power over one another.
The musical, directed by Lindsey Rosin and choreographed by Jennifer Weber with a propulsive energy, is a pretty faithful rendition of the movie—every perverse and poisonous contour is recreated—with the twist that some pretty clunking spoken exposition is now merely a strong-arm thrust forward to the music.
This is an addictive and fun checklist of ’90s standards like “Kiss Me,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and, at the end of act one when all manner of chaos is igniting, “Only Happy When It Rains.”
There is a mischief (ironic of course) in a lot of the song choices, and a lot of wink-winking at the audience. The talented and committed company of actors sing and dance with turbo-charged gusto.
Lauren Zakrin lip-smackingly attacks the part of scheming Kathryn Merteuil, as does Constantine Rousouli as Valmont; both color their warped, step-sibling characters with the bold strokes demanded by the material as they plot to deflower and corrupt the innocent just for the sheer damn hell of it.
Jessie Shelton as Cecile Caldwell is the perfect, sexually confused ingenue, and Carrie St. Louis as Annette Hargrove the perfect, if embattled, moral fulcrum. (And she really looks like Reese Witherspoon.)
The trick—sometimes successfully executed and sometimes not, but even when it's not it, umm, doesn’t really matter—is to match perfect ’90s song to perfect Cruel Intentions moment. The cries of recognition from the audience implied the tunes were everything, and if the fit wasn't perfect then who cares. Just hearing them sung and played with such animation as the company do was enough.
So, the things we looked pained at: in 1999, it may have been deemed acceptable to fling "fag," "queer," and "lesbian" around as an insult (it wasn't OK, but it was prevalent), but not today. And in Cruel Intentions, they are used as insults—there is no correction to them, the people saying them are not admonished, the insults are simply thrown and an audience in 2017 is encouraged to laugh at the people being made fun of or dismissed.
So, the big plot pivot of the football jock, Greg (Brian Muller) being a closeted "fag," is, in 2017, supposed to be funny in itself. A football jock being gay! How funny! What a clash of opposites! The shame and fear he feels are something to be leveraged against him by Sebastian (Constantine Rousouli), and laughed at by the audience, because ISN’T IT INNATELY FUNNY THAT A FOOTBALL JOCK COULD BE GAY.
And you see the girl who’s a virgin? You know why she might be a virgin? Because, y'know, she's a LESBIAN. That's it, that's the joke.
Oh, and you want to do learner kissing, like not real kissing. Well, that will be girl-on-girl too, because lesbian sexuality is a plaything, a mere stop on the road to Straight Town. And male homosexuality: oh, that's something to feel bad about, and to be blackmailed over.
Is this supposed to be 1999, or 1959?
To their great credit, Muller and Alex Boniello who plays Blaine Tuttle, the gay college student who seduces him in service to Valmont's villainy, do their best to lift their characters out of insult and cringing caricature to craft some semblance of a plausible romance and real pain from the cartoonish homophobia Cruel Intentions keeps slapping them with–hard.
If Backstreet Boys need him, Muller has the sweeping hand movements, jumps, and crotch thrusting down pat.
My pal rightly said that the easily-spoken gay-baiting wasn't in isolation; that everything in the musical is too much, and that is the point. Everything comes with a nod and a wink; actually, big nods, big winks. And sure, just as the film spun a toxic and very delicious cocktail out of sex, more sex, blackmail, race, sexuality, and exploitation, so does the musical. It luxuriates in its own immoral swamp, and that's fine.
But a lot has happened culturally since 1999, and the big problem facing the Cruel Intentions musical is that it steadfastly refuses to recognize it, or cast itself anew.
Cruel Intentions doesn't need this homophobia either; it could use its gay characters better, and serve them better, if it simply redrew them and their parts in the drama.
The most disturbing thing about Cruel Intentions wasn't simply watching its gleeful homophobia, it was watching many in the audience laughing along with it. There's a song in the second half where this anti-gay sourness, and sheer unfunniness, reaches an ugly crescendo. It isn't ironic. It's just mean.
Cruel Intentions fans will recall that it also includes a race storyline too, featuring the tutor Ronald Clifford (Matthew Griffin, excellent), and on stage this is quite properly played out, wittily in the spirit in the show, to show how wrong racism is. (Griffin looks suitably aghast as Patricia Richardson's Bunny Caldwell appropriates “No Scrubs” with flutily operatic white privilege.)
Cruel Intentions the musical, like the film, does nothing subtly. The sex scenes aren't subtle, the flashes of flesh are not subtle, the music is brilliantly played at maximum 90s rock volume by a four-person band, led by Zach Spound. Muller and Boniello wring the most fun from the “I Want It That Way” and “Bye Bye Bye,” and later “Sometimes.”
But just as the drama of Cruel Intentions can seem one-note, the musical interpretations here did too. When a song slowed down, became a ballad, paused a bit, it was a relief.
This lack of subtlety doesn't matter so much at (Le) Poisson Rouge, which is set up like a live music venue, with evocative lighting by James Kolditz. In its present incarnation show is tilted heavily towards that above a dramatic musical. It will matter more if the musical travels anywhere near a fuller Broadway staging.
There may well be a zippy jukebox musical in Cruel Intentions. But first, producers: rid it of the needless, cheap gay jokes, figure out the clunky storytelling segues, and introduce some variation in the singing and staging styles. Then go be as cruel and ironic as you want.
Cruel Intentions is at (Le) Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street, NYC, until February 19. Book tickets here.