CRUEL INTENTIONS at The Other Palace
“an evening of unadulterated fun and escapism, with a fabulous soundtrack delivered with passion, right up to its climax”
With a core cast of eight triple-threats, bolstered by an equally talented ensemble, “Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical” bursts onto the stage at The Other Palace in a glorious blaze of fun and virtuosity. However cruel the protagonists may be, the true intentions of this talented troupe are to entertain and send us home with our heads full of ‘poptastic’ tunes and a smile as wide as the Cheshire Cat’s. Ay, there’s the rub – the toxic treachery is let off too lightly. Based on the 1999 teen romantic drama, in turn based on the eighteenth-century French morality tale ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’, the wages of sin are just a token penalty. Yet to their credit, Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin and Roger Kumble – the creators of this memorable musical – inject some of the behaviour of the characters with a modern-day sensibility to redress the balance.
But such conjecture misses the point and is ill-suited to a show that thrives on not taking itself seriously. Jonathan O’Boyle’s racy and pacey production dishes out the story and the jokes in delightful, digestible bitesize scenes with brilliantly choice hit songs for punchlines. Which is where the ingenuity really shines, for it never feels like a juke-box musical. Even in the most abrupt jolt from dialogue to song, the transition is smooth, natural, uncannily appropriate, and often very, very funny.
It is a winning formula, proven by its Off-Broadway debut seven years ago which was extended three times back in 2017. Even if the London revival is somewhat emotionally disengaging, we are drawn into the protagonists’ world as we follow the sociopathic stepsiblings’ shenanigans. The charming but devilish couple place a bet. Kathryn (Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky) wagers on whether Sebastian (Daniel Bravo) can deflower their high school headmaster’s daughter, Annette (Abbie Budden). As the couple set out to destroy the innocent girl, they find themselves in a dangerous game of revenge and malice. Kathryn is equally intent on corrupting new girl Cecile (Rose Galbraith) using Sebastian as a pawn – among others including music teacher Ronald (Nickcolia King-N’Da), gay couple Blaine (Josh Barnett) and Greg (Barney Wilkinson), and Cecile’s nouveau-riche mother, Bunny Caldwell (Jess Buckby).
“Gary Lloyd’s power-driven and energised choreography is devilishly divine”
Each cast member has ample opportunity to showcase their outstanding vocal abilities as they soar through the musical numbers, giving a whole new slant on the original lyrics. It will be difficult to disassociate, now, Ace of Base’s ‘The Sign’ from Cecile’s first orgasm, or TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’ from Bunny’s innate racism. Elsewhere a real poignancy pours from Jewel’s ‘Foolish Games’, courtesy of Abbie Budden’s heartfelt portrayal of the prim Annette. Reaping the biggest applause is Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky’s Kathryn whose outstanding solos almost make you forgive her character’s maleficence. The Counting Crows ‘Colourblind’ is a gorgeous duet for Daniel Bravo and Budden, before the ensemble kicks in with spine-tingling harmonies.
There is little time to do so, but between songs the performers manage to flesh out personality onto the skeletal bones of their personas. Rose Galbraith is at once raunchy and kittenish as the ingénue Cecile, while Budden’s virginal Annette bewitches with sex appeal and sassiness despite the prim exterior. Daniel Bravo’s amoral coolness melts along the path of redemption, whereas McCaulsky remains as cold as ice: the self-confessed mistress of self-absorption. Her performance is indeed a highlight, although generously allowing the stars surrounding her to shine as bright.
There are inevitably moments of implausibility. And for all its salaciousness and profanity, the show is somehow not very shocking. There is a clean gloss that renders the scandalous a touch scandal-free. It is all about sex, but is sometimes sexless as though the intimacy directors are on overtime. But let’s not single them out – it seems the rest of the creative team are on overtime too. Gary Lloyd’s power-driven and energised choreography is devilishly divine. Chris Whybrow’s sound is crisp and perfectly balanced to pinpoint each vocal and each note from the four-piece band, led by musical director Denise Crowley.
Slick, snappy and sometimes sensational, “Cruel Intentions” pokes fun at its source material and itself. Who cares about its intentions – cruel or otherwise? The result is an evening of unadulterated fun and escapism, with a fabulous soundtrack delivered with passion, right up to its climax.
CRUEL INTENTIONS at The Other Palace
Reviewed on 30th January 2024
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Previously reviewed at this venue: