Review: Kokandy Productions Presents Scandalous Teens and Schemes in Cruel Intentions: the ’90s Musical

What says snobby teens with step-sibling issues and boy band music cruising the airwaves better than the movie Cruel Intentions? It was a movie made for the’90s. It was a perfect take on Dangerous Liaisons with the same sinister undertone of louche behavior and cruelty, but with wealthy teens from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. What could be better? Sex, drugs, and more sex in Cruel Intentions the ’90s Musical! Kokandy Productions brings a welcome tonic of raunchy punchlines, ’90s music, and choreography to a musical just in time for summer. Director Adrian Abel Azevedo brings considerable directing experience to the table for a well-polished musical in a black box theater. This Cruel Intentions is not nearly as melodramatic as the movie or as mannered as the films Valmont (1989) or Dangerous Liaisons (1988) a decade earlier. This is a tragi-farce because there is that whole crushing revenge element to the musical but how they get there is mostly hilarious.

Kathryn Merteuil (Maddison Denault) and Sebastian Valmont (David Moreland) are step-siblings with some unhealthy ways of amusing themselves while rambling about their lush surroundings. They attend an exclusive school and “summer” whereas the rest of the schmoes have to get a summer job. Maddison Denault is a sizzling Kathryn with amazing eyes and stage presence. She is dressed in what would be considered “Material Girl” style in a corset chastely under her school jacket and a lovely cross—filled with cocaine. Denault is not an Xray sylph like the character is portrayed on screen. Hers is a buxom vixen with wild hair and quite the voice. Moreland gives off that pleased boredom of the wealthy lay about. His walk and approach are more cocksure than merely confident. Moreland has a fine voice and his character is given more emotional range, which does not tip into mawkish. Kathryn wants revenge on an ex-boyfriend by having Sebastian nail his new “chastity before marriage” girlfriend—Annette Hardgrove (Kelcy Taylor). Sebastian wants revenge on busybody snob Bunny Caldwell (Elizabeth Lesinski) for spreading his bad reputation around. He asks Kathryn to facilitate a sting on Bunny’s daughter Cecile (Anabella Oddo) so that he can take her virginity.

Maddison Denault and Anabella Oddo. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The schemes ensue with a playlist right out of MTv. The ensemble cast sings really well with some difficult harmonies and remember, that a lot of autotune cleaned up some ’90s music. Music director Isabella Isherwood pulls some really great cool performances out of some actors who do not have great singing voices. Isherwood curated a playlist that covers the ’90s decade with songs from No Doubt, Garbage, Goo Goo Dolls, and N’Sync. I almost fell off my chair when Bunny Caldwell (Lesinski) busted a move to No Scrubs when she caught Cecile’s Black (gasp!) music teacher Ronald (Lucas Looch Johnson) giving her daughter an innocent smooch. Anabella Oddo is hilarious as the innocent Cecile who cannot keep her legs together literally. Oddo does some great physical comedy and her expressions are scene-stealing. Johnson has a brief comic turn as he assures Bunny that “this Black man is leaving!”)

Elizabeth Lesinski and Maddison Denault. Photo by Evan Hanover.

Moreland and Taylor have good chemistry as Sebastian and Annette. Taylor plays the chaste but intelligent young woman who is not down for games. She doesn’t get any of the comic lines but she makes her putdown of Sebastian funny. There was a gay blackmail subplot that I would have liked to see more of with Justin Grey McPike as Blaine and Jimmy Romano as closeted jock Greg. Cardwell makes a vacuum cleaner joke that got a big laugh and he has great comic chemistry with Romano. The dance numbers have the boy band moves and some others that I had forgotten and I’m hopeful no one ever saw me do them. Director Azevedo stages the movement of the actors really well. The dance numbers and some crowd scenes make creative use of the small space.

David Moreland and Kelcy Taylor. Photo by Evan Hanover.

The set design for black box can be tricky and set designer Mara Ishihara Zinky does an excellent job by keeping the furnishings spare and mobile. The shadow play on red velvet-covered windows is a nice touch with backlighting and some interesting use of fruit. There were some off moments with the sound. Some of the cast members can belt a song and hold the long dramatic ending notes. The sound was not well balanced for those moments but otherwise done very well by Lynsy Folckomer who was also mixing a live band. The finale was the entire cast singing the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. It was the end music for the movie and it was fitting, I find it even more fitting in this musical because of the harmonies and the entire cast doing some wonderful chorus harmonies. I liked this show and I had my daughter Ahndrea to tell me who originally sang what. She is a ’90s girl and really had a great time. I recommend Cruel Intentions the ’90s Musical for some good summer fun. I don’t know what is appropriate for kids these days but there are a lot of allusions to sexual activity and strong language. You be the judge of what you may have to explain.

Cruel Intentions: the ’90s Musical is now playing at the Chopin Theatre (Studio) at 1543 W. Division St. It runs Thursdays through Sunday until August 7. Tickets are $40 regular and $30 for seniors and students. There are limited $15 student tickets. For more information, please visit www.kokandyproductions.com. Covid precautions are in place at Chopin Theatre. Please bring your vaccine card and a mask is to be worn at all times in the theater. Keep the actors, yourself and the audience safe. It’s Hot Theater Summer!

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.