Our teenage years are our most tempestuous and our most formative. We take advantage of our diminished inhibitions, delighting in perhaps reckless behavior. At the same time, we find ourselves plagued with anxiety about the constructs we’re forced into and the expectations of parents, teachers, siblings, friends etc. As teenagers, we fight and fall in love in the same breath; we are just as filled with infinite ambition as we are with all-consuming fear; and we find ourselves engaged in wagers with our step-siblings over another person’s chastity that involves sexual sabotage while simultaneously trying to balance the daily schedule of an elite prep school.
Oh, was that last bit not the universal teenage experience? Did Cruel Intentions take some liberties there?
Cruel Intentions (1999) was most ingenious, and most sinisterly fun, in its portrayal of the fundamental high-school/teenage experience that was absurdly embellished by the debauchery and perfidious overtures of decadent, Enlightenment-era French aristocracy. As incongruous as it may seem to accentuate teenage drama with centuries-old, indulgent French etiquette (well, maybe not that incongruous), Cruel Intentions was stunningly masterful in modernizing a story of wealth, sabotage and degradation first brought to life in Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses.
The film’s plot is as deviously intricate as, well, a lot of the wild schemes so many of us crafted or found ourselves caught up in as teenagers. In the simplest of terms, Kathryn Merteuil beseeches her lothario step-brother, Sebastian Valmont, to seduce and sleep with the abundantly naïve Cecile Caldwell to sully her reputation so Kathryn’s former-beau Court (who ditched Kathryn for Cecile) will find Cecile undesirable. Sebastian refuses as he is intent on bedding the proudly virginal Annette, who has recently published a piece in Seventeen Magazine declaring celibacy until marriage. The step-siblings decide on a bet: if Sebastian fails to sleep with the puritanical Annette, he will have to give Kathryn his vintage Jaguar; if he is successful, Kathryn (his step-sister) will also sleep with him, as she is the one girl that Sebastian has yet to “conquer.”
Cruel Intentions didn’t so much break taboos as it did forcefully refuse to acknowledge any taboos existed at all. Like so many iconic cult classic films receiving the musical reboot treatment—Carrie: The Musical in 1988; Evil Dead: The Musical in 2003; Heathers: The Musical in 2010; and, less popularly, Silence! The Musical in 2005—Cruel Intentions entered the on-stage musical pantheon in 2015, finding a second life as Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical. Using more or less the same plot and characters, Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical uses blissfully nostalgic (and eclectic) hits from the 90s—by artists like NYSNC, Counting Crows, The Verve, Garbage, TLC and others—as narrative devices and musical soliloquies throughout the story. Now on an impressive national run, the show, directed by Lindsey Rosin and Kenneth Ferrone, will make a stop in Pittsburgh this Saturday, April 20th at the Byham Theatre.
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak to some of the remarkably talented cast of Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical—about the unique thrills and challenges to starring in a production so noteworthy in its legendary absurdity, and the joys of working on a team so unique in its support and respect for one another.
Dara Orland is the first to point out how wretched her character Bunny, mother of Cecile, often is. “I don’t align with Bunny’s ‘morals’ whatsoever,” Orland stated in probably the understatement of the century. “She gets put in her place,” Orland assured, but not before wreaking havoc, being wantonly classist and racist, and belting out some bawdy numbers. Orland, a native Pennsylvanian, harnessed her boundless energy and proclivity to song as a child into a life of performance leading to NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where she was able to work with the late, legendary Elizabeth Swados. Orland was surprised at how amusing Bunny was, admitting “I didn’t know how funny Bunny was until I had an audience,” and that once performed in front of an audience, she could revel in how absurd the show (and Bunny) is.
The crucial function of the audience was a recurring theme for all the cast interviews, echoed most stridently by Taylor Pearlstein, whose character Kathryn is destined to evoke the most vitriolic audience response. Pearlstein began performing as a child, starting out first a musician (mastering the guitar and ukulele) with a gradual transition into theatrical performance and writing (her own musical “Wake You Up” is currently being brought to life), and was urged by friends and fellow artists that the role of Kathryn would perfect for her. Playing Kathryn in front of audience has been particularly striking, as Pearlstein noted the odd and emotional phenomenon of people finding enjoyment in Kathryn’s demise (however deserved at times it may be).
And yet, Pearlstein connected with the overwhelming positivity and humanity in playing a character as complex and divisive as Kathryn. “A lot of women who love the film are really kind of rooting for Kathryn, even though she does questionable things…[but] we all know the society that has created the monster that is Kathryn,” Pearlstein observed, emphasizing that taking on Kathryn has been an “incredibly empowering” endeavor. As outlandish and salacious as Cruel Intentions is, the nuanced commentary on destructive, systemic gender norms and biases, as well as matters of class and race, is profound and cutting.
Richard Crandle may play one of the few, least morally-ambiguous characters (even with whole having-feelings-for-a-student situation, so that’s saying something), but his journey with Ronald Clifford has been one deeply engaged with the impact the show has as entertainment and as a piece of social criticism. Crandle was a tried and true choir kid, citing his mother (who started him singing in church) as his grounding source of inspiration who instilled in him an ethic to “do with excellence and do with purpose.”
Musical theatre was not on his path until friends and teachers encouraged him to try in high school, galvanizing a change of majors in college, and getting him to a point where he is landing stellar roles (including an upcoming turn as Little Richard). As much as Crandle strives to stay as “honest and light-hearted as possible” in Cruel Intentions, he is keenly aware of the unique impact the show can have, particularly with social matters. Crandle knows the show can be “a bit of a mind trick…[you] come to the theatre and get read for filth and laugh and cry” in such a way that some people may have fun while unexpectedly facing their own abhorrent behavior (like “an audience full of Bunny’s” that Crandle imagined being stunned by the familiar things they see).
When auditioning for the role of Blaine, Sebastian’s best friend and only (out) gay character, David Wright praised the wildly fun material and genuine openness of the creative team that allowed for such a collaborative, honest experience that his other cast members celebrated. Wright commented, “I had an appointment and went in to sing ‘Sometimes’ by Britney Spears and read for Blaine. I felt like it was such a safe space and it was the most fun I had had doing material in an audition.” Wright is self-described 90s kid at heart, and like Pearlstein has a certain affinity for pop/rock adaptations as a child who performed music videos, ABBA and Britney Spears medleys, and eventually became a natural musical theatre performer. Wright, who impressively serves as Dance Captain as well as playing Blaine, noted the challenge of a character like Blaine—“ As a gay man I don’t really relate to Blaine. I feel the movie is funny but paints him a sex demon that manipulates closeted boys to his beck and call which I feel is a stereotype of gays in general.” Much like the rest of the cast facing vexing, morally compromised characters, Wright sought out “the sweeter side” of Blaine in devoting himself to the role.
In portraying the callous Sebastian, Jeffrey Kringer looked for his character’s layers just as Wright with Blaine (while harboring healthy disdain for Sebastian). “We have a young man swiftly approaching adulthood who recognizes the problems in society, yet used his privilege to capitalize on those problems rather than to promote positive change and equality,” Kringer remarked. Starting out as a young performer in The Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival and progressing to Fredonia State University to further his craft, Kringer’s earnest approach to performance is reflected in how he tackles such a problematic character. “As horrible as his deeds are, Sebastian is still a relatable human and there truly vulnerable moments where it peeks through,” Kringer said, while adding that to commit wholeheartedly to being Sebastian, he had to hope for the potential of repentance and redemption that all humans, no matter how atrocious, can achieve.
It is rare to speak to a group of actors as strikingly affable and genuine who all serve as testaments to not only their own talent, but their admiration and love for their entire team involved. Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical promises to flabbergast, enrapture, and challenge, in such a way that Orland calls “transcendent” and allows for audiences to “fall in love with the characters again.” While perhaps not for everyone, Cruel Intentions will be undeniably electric. Or, in the words of Crandle, “it’s one hell of a show.”
(Cast not interviewed: John Battagliese as Greg McConnell, Brooke Singer as Cecile Caldwell, Betsy Stewart as Annette, , and Nicole Medoro (This Ain’t No Disco) as the female understudy and Aramie Payton (The Scottsboro Boys) as the male understudy.)
For ticket information visit the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
For more information about the show, visit their site.
Photography Credit: Jenny Anderson