The 1999 movie Cruel Intentions transported the intrigues of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons dangereuses to present day Manhattan. It was a bold move by screenwriter Roger Kumble, who placed his characters at an elite high school in New York City. Add to the mix a young, beautiful cast including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reece Witherspoon and it made a stylish, cynical bookend to the prolific high-school movies of the previous decade.
The movie never quite lived up to Colombia Pictures expectations, but it did spawn a few sequels and eventually in 2017 the story was developed into a musical, taking advantage of its popular soundtrack, but expanding from it. Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical had a short but fairly successful run off-Broadway and director Jonathan O’Boyle’s production for the Edinburgh Fringe marks its UK debut.
The story sees wealthy step-siblings Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Merteuil placing a bet as to whether or not Sebastian can sleep with virginal new-girl Annette Hargrove. They happily destroy the reputation of anyone who gets in their way with blackmail or sexual manipulation. High School Musical this isn’t.
With two leads so morally bankrupt, it’s difficult to imagine how this would work as a musical, but this is a jukebox musical, so your standard rulebook flies out of the window in favour of cracking tunes shoehorned into a familiar story. O’Boyle seems fairly uncertain of the tone and any of the subtlety of the movie is lost, with punchlines played to the gallery with all the zeal of a King’s Theatre pantomime.
Kumble may have created the book from his original script with assistance from Lindsey Rosin and Jordan Ross but it takes second place to the songs.
As Merteuil, Rebecca Gilhooley gets all the best lines and delivers them with suitable hauteur and Sophie Isaacs is particularly strong as the newcomer Annette. A statuesque Dominic Andersen certainly looks the part as Valmont, but his accent is all over the place and the emotion of his musical numbers never quite reaches his face.
Sarah Morrison’s musical direction is sound and there are some decent arrangements from Zach Spound, re-imagining the likes of Placebo, the Verve and the Backstreet Boys. Sometimes the songs work really well, such as Kiss Me, when several plot strands take a step forward led by Mertuil and Cecile’s infamous kiss. Others simply interrupt the story to remind the audience that this is a musical set in the 1990s.
Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical is a shadow of the 1999 movie and O’Boyle’s production looks pretty basic, even for the fringe. It may pull in crowds desperate for a 1990s’ revival but the cynicism, opulence and edge of the original are lost.