“Dangerous Liaisons but it’s teenagers” gets a 1990s jukebox musical reboot with Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, whose spectacular sets and occasional nudity serve a memorable feast for your eyes as well as your ears.
The 1782 French sex novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses begat a 1987 Tony-winning play of the same name, which begat the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons that won three Oscars. That story was rebooted yet again in the 1999 Sarah Michelle Gellar-Ryan Phillippe movie Cruel Intentions, a low-budget smash hit that launched the film careers of Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair.
And this sex-drenched franchise has banged out yet another incarnation with Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, an off-Broadway hit now playing at the Victoria Theatre through October 1. It’s a Ray of Light Theatre production, the musical theater troupe that’s previously transformed the, erm, well-aged 115-year-old Victoria Theatre stage with electrifying sets in productions like Kinky Boots and their all-female Jesus Christ Superstar.
And they’ve done it again with Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical, a satirical sex comedy about insanely privileged private high school sexpots and virgins, with the former scheming to seduce the latter into their camp. Set designer Matt Owens’s impressive LED-lit Roman arches with window columns will surely draw comparisons to the opening credits of The Muppet Show. Yet the actors are positioned intermittently through different arches in a way that keeps this set fresh and fascinating through the whole nearly two-hour show, and there are other dazzling visual effect goodies sprinkled into the performance.
In the Ryan Phillippe (Sebastian) role, Jake Gale shows he can play a loathsome narcissist every bit as charmingly as he played the aw-shucks hero in Kinky Boots. Chelsea Holifield makes the Sarah Michelle Gellar (Kathryn) role viciously and deliciously her own. But the most comically gifted cast member is Anne Norland in the clumsy ingénue Selma Blair part (Cecille), though her role is regrettably reduced in the second act.
And it’s PG-13, people, because we do see a little ass in this show.
But about this “90’s Musical” business… it’s more of a “90’s Bubblegum Pop Musical.” The 1990s were a musically glorious period where the underground stormed the mainstream — with greats like Nirvana, Alanis Morissette, and the Pixies/Breeders, and hip-hop breakthroughs like the Fugees, Notorious B.I.G., and the Wu-Tang Clan. You will hear no such greatness in this jukebox musical score.
You will instead hear the disposable ditties of Christina Aguilera, No Doubt, and Jewel. A couple numbers are delivered here with a healthy sense of irony and mockery (NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” and TLC’s “No Scrubs” are especially funny). The score elicits a number of spontaneous audience sing-alongs, but just as many groans.
Maybe that’s the point, as Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical is just tongue-in-cheek silliness throughout. But it’s a three-star show that could have been a four-star show, because it chooses to serve up cotton candy when it could serve filet mignon.
At critical points in the plot, particularly the climax when the anti-heroes have their changes of heart and comeuppance, there is never any emotional exploration of why the characters had second thoughts. The script just shoehorns the actors into another somewhat-thematically connected 90s pop number, opting for sing-alongs rather than character development.
It’s great fun, but not memorable, as the book by Roger Kumble (who directed the 1999 film) avoids any attempt at character depth. Emotionally, this stage musical reboot of Dangerous Liaisons chooses to play it safe.
Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical runs Wednesdays-Saturdays through October 1, 8 p.m., at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., $20-$70, tickets here
Image: Cruel Intentions cast by Job Bauer, via Ray of Light Productions