The 90’s are making a comeback in a big way. What better way to celebrate the nostalgia of the era than revisiting the seduction and scandal of “Cruel Intentions,” the cult classic film that made household names of stars Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Philippe, Selma Blair and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical is a hilarious romp back in time with a killer score that includes such hits as Bittersweet Symphony, The Boyz II Men, Christina Aguilera, REM, *NSYNC, and, of course, Britney Spears. The musical production is presented by the FSCJ Artist Series May 16-18 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts (www.artistseriesjax.com).
Based on the 1999 film, Cruel Intentions: The 90’s Musical follows Manhattan’s most manipulative elite. Seduced by revenge and fueled by passion, diabolical step-siblings Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Merteuil place a bet on whether or not Sebastian can deflower their incoming headmaster’s daughter, Annette Hargrove. As the two set out to destroy the innocent girl and anyone who gets in their way, they find themselves tangled in a web of secrets, temptation and even love.
John Battagliese, who plays the closeted football player Greg McConnell, is living the 90’s dream for the first time. McConnell doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the film but the musical gives Battagliese the opportunity to add some depth to the character.
“The cool thing they’ve done on stage is give him some more of a real via the song choices. You really see his progression of finding himself and dealing with it and he’s blast to play. He’s so fun. And as I’m a far cry from a football player, its definitely been a fun challenge but I was like ‘please don’t make me throw a football on stage’.”
Battagliese was yet born when Gellar and Blair won the Moon Man for Best Kiss at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards but he’s embracing all the 90’s fashion and fun with open arms.
“Just in general that time was fun for all fashion. It was a little reckless in terms of clothing combinations and colors. A lot of butterfly clips,” he laughs. “I encourage anyone coming to the show to dress accordingly. Everything in Urban Outfitters is pretty close to how we’re dressing on stage. I’ve definitely adopted it in some of my own wardrobe. Cruel Intentions is really shaping me not only as an actor but in my fashion sense as well.”
After two runs in Los Angeles and a pop-up engagement in New York, Cruel Intentions; The 90’s Musical made its Off-Broadway debut at Greenwich Village nightclub Le Poisson Rouge in November 2017. Originally scheduled for a 10-week engagement, the show was extended three times through April 2018, answeing the curious and confusing question that often follows cult classics from screen to stage. It’s not about why you should see it, but rather how many times.
“We’ve had a lot of audiences where it is sort of a younger crowd. There’s a lot of fans from the Off Broadway and LA productions that are high school and young college age that have their own cult following of the musical. And now watching the film is one of their favorites,” says Battagliese. “It’s pretty much the movie script word for word. So people who are familiar with the film will already know it and love it. If you don’t, then its really a story that takes you a journey.”
Before he auditioned, Battagliese had seen the staged version but only caught the film in bits and pieces. When he learned he won the role, he watched the movie start to finish and learned a few surprises along the way.
“I was like ‘wait, Sebastian dies at the end? What?’ I’d seen the version they did off Broadway and I’d had friends in it previously in LA. I’d been dying to see it and I when I finally got a chance, I went again. So, I’d seen that version fully through before I’d seen the movie and I was like ‘Where are the songs? Why isn’t he singing?’”
For the younger audiences with no actual frame of reference for the movie or the glory that was the 90’s, Cruel Intentions offers a master class. The musical sticks tight to the original script but softens many of the scenes that might not be appropriate for some audiences.
“It’s kind of a throw back now. The movie is definitely a time capsule and it’s interesting to go back now. The music really helps iron out the parts [from the film] that might feel kind of cringe worthy on stage in a way that makes it either funnier or more heartfelt and you really feel for those characters. It’s kind of amazing what the music and choreography can do.”
While the characters navigate the script, the music provides a real sense of time and place for the audience and cast alike.
“It’s so fun to live my Britney Spears fantasy every night,” Battagliese says. “For so many people it’s not really their era, they’ve sort of clung to it, both older and younger. We’ve had the high school students and their parents and maybe grandparents losing their mind over it.”
Like any show that develops a strong following, certain lines have become fan favorites and illicit a huge crowd response. “There’s big applause lines. A lot of Kathryn’s lines definitely get big reactions because they are so iconic. She had some zingers.”
Sandwiched between the 90’s soundtrack and the killer one-liners is a message of self-acceptance. Battagliese looks at the show as a teaching tool you can dance to. “It’s kind of like a period piece now. The progressions that we’ve made or haven’t made is kind of eye opening. I think seeing it on stage as opposed to a film makes either jokes or touchy subjects but it is a nice learning tool for audience who didn’t grow up in that time. I think the thing that I have taken from this is its definitely a fun show and a night out. You will have a blast but it gets you,” he laughs.
“I find myself in the wings sometimes gasping and tearing up. It really does get you and its so cinematic and transitions so seamlessly that you’ll find yourself laughing again. I kind of expected ‘oh, it will be funny’ but I didn’t expect to be constantly laughing backstage and trying not to break onstage. That’s been the hardest part, just like ‘wait, I need to focus’. It’s okay to have fun but this is also my job. There are much worse things I could be doing. And you get to dance at the end.”