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‘Cruel Intentions’ musical does little justice to plot or hit parade of songs

Betsy Stewart and the cast of "Cruel Intentions: The '90s Musical." | Jenny Anderson

If you remember anything about pop culture in the 1990s, you’re the target audience for “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” The jukebox tuner is packed with a dazzling array of iconic songs by the likes of REM, TLC, Liz Phair, *NSYNC, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears.

That said, were I counsel for TLC or REM et al., I’d advise them to look into a cease-and-desist order, sent to the purveyors of “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” Because this is a show that will leave you wailing for them to leave Britney and company alone. This is a show that should, to quote those great poets of pop, go “Bye Bye Bye.”

Co-created by Jordan Ross, Roger Kumble and Lindsey Rosin, “Cruel Intentions” was inspired by the 1999 movie of the same name, directed by Kumble and inspired in part by the 1985 play of the same name. That, in turn, was inspired by the 1988 movie of the same name, which was inspired by the 1959 French film “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” which was inspired by the 1782 French novel of the same name.

Not many stories older than the Republic of France can claim the cult-classic status that sticks to “Cruel Intentions.”

‘Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical’

★1⁄2

When: Through April 14

Where: Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St.

Tickets: $35-$72

Info: BroadwayinChicago.com

The plot is delicious: Incestuous step-siblings Sebastian Valmont (Jeffrey Kringer) and Kathryn Merteuil (Taylor Pearlstein) make a sick bet over whether Sebastian can deflower virtuous Annette (Betsy Stewart).

If Sebastian bags the Kansas-bred, professed lover of Jesus, his prize is that he gets do something with his sister that we cannot print in a family newspaper.

And if Sebastian fails to conquer Annette, Kathryn gets his 1956 Jaguar Roadster.

For all the full-throttle lasciviousness, this is a profoundly moral story. Kathryn and Sebastian eventually become victims of their own heartless manipulations. They set out to destroy others, only to find themselves utterly shattered in the end.

Taylor Pearlstein (from left), Richard Crandle and Jeffrey Kringer in “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” | Jenny Anderson
Taylor Pearlstein (from left), Richard Crandle and Jeffrey Kringer in “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” | Jenny Anderson

Things start to go wrong from the start under tour director Kenneth Ferrone, whose work is based on Rosin’s direction for the musical’s earlier stagings. Smallish things — a follow spot that doesn’t, missed line cues, a soloist starting a few beats early and having to repeat himself to get in sync with the three-piece band — accrue.

More troubling is that there’s almost no sense of playfulness to the intentionally campy hijinks of the plot. The story winds on with grim, plodding tastelessness.

There’s no sexiness to the proceedings, either. Instead, we get what looks like an unintentional parody of a basement teen magazine photo spread accompanying some kind of breathlessly lurid expose.

Jennifer Weber’s choreography is similarly troubled. The moves are hilarious and not necessarily in a good way.

The biggest problem is the unforgivable treatment of the music. The score is ridiculously great. There are powerhouse anthems (The Verve’s incandescent “Bittersweet Symphony,” Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”), scorched-earth torch songs (Jewel’s “Foolish Games,” Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One”), insouciant earworms (“Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle,” Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” ), unabashed crooners (“Backstreet Boys’ “I Want it That Way,” Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”) and hear-me-roar feminist manifestos (Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch”).

But music director/keyboardist Dan Garmon does not get a good sound out of either his Equity cast or the trio (Garmon, guitarist David Kawamura and drummer Josh Roberts) charged with delivering the score. Pitches curdle. Crescendos morph into shrieks. The acoustics are off, and the vocalists often getting drowned out by the tinny orchestra’s strident blaring of Zach Spound’s orchestrations. Exquisite lyrics are garbled into mush.

The show is set in Manhattan, but Jason Sherwood’s rickety set doesn’t contain so much as a plank that evokes New York City.

There’s not so much as an ember of sexual chemistry among cast members or a shred of believability attached to the characters’ actions.

The sole bright spot is Brooke Singer as precocious cellist Cecile Caldwell. Singer emerges as a fantastic comic actor and brings a spark of irrepressible joy. But she cannot carry the show alone.

Like Justin Timberlake’s cornrows, “Cruel Intentions: The ‘90s Musical” is ill-advised. If this show were a person, it would be a scrub. I advise making a mix-tape of the original songs in the score.

Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.

Richard Crandle and Brooke Singer in “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” | Jenny Anderson
Richard Crandle and Brooke Singer in “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical.” | Jenny Anderson