Setting up ‘camp’ in ‘Cruel Intentions the Musical’

by MIKE CHAIKEN

EDITIONS EDITOR

One can suppose it’s apropos that “Cruel Intentions the Musical” arrived in Hartford the same week that the 2019 Met Gala in New York celebrated “Camp,” the new exhibition at the Costume Institute.

“Cruel Intentions the Musical” proudly flies the “camp” flag.

For those who don’t understand the concept of “camp,” writer Susan Sontag summed it up in one succinct sentence.

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” wrote Sontag.

And the quotation marks flew all over the stage in Hartford on May 10.

The stage show is based on the 1999 movie, “Cruel Intentions,” which starred Sarah Michelle GellarRyan PhillippeReese Witherspoon, and Selma Blair.  The film itself was an update of the play (and subsequent movie) “Les Liaisons dangereuses” by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.” The movie was directed by Roger Kumble, who wrote the book for the musical.

When the movie was released at the end of the 20th century, it was your typical teen drama with your hot-at-the-moment teen dreams in the key roles. Like many of those teen films of the 1980s and 1990s, “Cruel Intentions” took itself way too seriously.

However, fast forward to 2019, and “Cruel Intentions the Musical” doesn’t take itself too seriously and doesn’t want the audience to take it too seriously.

In many ways, the show follows the tradition of “Little Shop of Horrors.” It takes a cult movie and then thrusts tongue firmly in cheek.

Given the plot of the original movie, where sexual blackmail, incest, and fratricide all rear their ugly heads, it’s probably best that the show find a way to laugh off topics that are not socially palatable in #MeToo America.

In keeping with its campy flavor, performances almost always veer toward melodrama and over-exaggeration — with an implied nod and a wink to indicate the actors know its s joke and the audience should acknowledge it’s a joke, too

Besides playing to fans of the cult movie, “Cruel Intentions” also snares an audience who grew up listening to radio in the 1990s. The jukebox musical is filled with nuggets from the ’90s, such the Backstreet Boys “I Want It That Way,” N’Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye,” and No Doubt’s “Just A Girl.”

If nothing else, it’s a smart business move. Up to now, most jukebox musicals mined the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Those audiences are dying out. And the fans of the 1990s now are old enough where they might enjoy a stage show that speaks to their youth.

The roles were all well cast, offering echoes (but not exact replicas) of the movie’s original performers.

Jeffrey Kringle has the right amount of oily charm as Sebastian Valmont, the physically fit private school cad looking for his next sexual conquest.

Taylor Pearlstein provides the right amount of sexy, boo-hiss as the bitchy villainous Kathryn Merteuil, who is intent on pulling on everyone’s strings and ruining a few lives in the process.

Betsy Stewart, as the virgin Betsy Stewart, cleverly avoids the temptation to reduce her ingénue to a stereotype. There is a wiliness to her young character.

Brooke Singer provides considerable comic relief to “Cruel Intentions” as Cecile Caldwell, the romantic roadkill of Sebastian’s and Kathryn’s machinations.

It’s all great fun.

However, the show is not perfect.

Tone vacillates wildly.

Sometimes, the campiness settles in and roasts marshmallows. Sometimes, it is turned off and we get melodrama. And sometimes, the show shifts clearly into Lifetime movie territory.

The audience, at times, seemed confused as to whether they were supposed to laugh or cry.

Additionally, some scenes seemed like toss offs that weren’t fully developed or necessary. And the songs, although enjoyable to hear in a live setting, were clearly inserted as ear candy as opposed to plot drivers.

But overall, “Cruel Intentions the Musical” was well worth seeing. The audience clearly was having a blast watching the story unfold and listening to the 1990s musical.

And, truth be told, camp is always best if a few flaws are shining through.

How else would you see the quotation marks?

I give “Cruel Intentions the Musical” 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

“Cruel Intentions” continues Saturday, May 11 at The Bushnell.

For more information, go to Bushnell.org.