Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Ray of Light's latest offering is the darkly devious Cruel Intentions, created by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin, Roger Kumble and based on the 1999 film, which in turn was based on the epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, "Les Liaisons dangereuses." Set in a fancy Upper East Side school, Manchester Prep, Cruel Intentions is the story of Kathryn Merteuil (Chelsea Holifield) and her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont (Jake Gale). Kathryn is beyond peeved that her boyfriend Court Reynolds (Ted Sclavos) has dumped her for an incoming freshman, the naive and sheltered Cecile (Anne Norland). Seeking revenge, she asks Sebastian–whose reputation as a horndog is well-established at Manchester Prep–to seduce the virginal Cecile, thereby ruining her for Court. Sebastian refuses, saying the task is beneath him, it being far too easy. He has plans on a far more lofty target: Annette Hargrove (Marah Sotelo), a transfer student from Kansas who recently had an essay published in Seventeen magazine, pronouncing her commitment to remain a virgin until marriage. Kathryn proposes a bet: if Sebastian fails to seduce Annette, Kathryn will get Sebastian's vintage Jaguar. If he succeeds, Kathryn says, she will "fuck his brains out." The bet is accepted and the intrigue and double-dealings begin in earnest.
Directed by Leslie Waggoner, the action takes place on a set (designed by Matt Owens) dominated by a high wall with an array of human-sized niches or alcoves, where ensemble members can look down on the action, or–as in the segment where the cast sings Sixpence None the Richer's hit, "Kiss Me"–engage in some osculatory frolicking. The show is set in 1999, and the music is all from the '90s, including numbers from R.E.M, Britney Spears, Melissa Etheridge, NSYNC, TLC, and others. Flanking the stage are two towers of three monitors, placed in portrait orientation, where a range of graphics and animations play that support or complement the action onstage.
The four leads–Jack Gale, Chelsea Holifield, Anne Norland, and Marah Sotelo–are excellent, each in their own way. Gale, as Sebastian, is appropriately haughty and privileged, but it's his powerful tenor that is the main attraction. It's got that angsty put-upon teen vibe that works nicely with the mood of the songs. Chelsea Holifield–dressed by costumers Sara Altier and Shane Ray in spandex tights, skimpy top and corset–delivers a different kind of power, and she shreds Melissa Etheridge's "I'm the Only One" as a means of explaining her feelings at being dumped by Court. And the bitchy, uber-popular girl vibe she exudes will remind you just how much you hated the alpha girl at your school. As Cecile, Anne Norland plays the comedy hard, which is a nice contrast to the distant, I'm-too-popular-to-care-what-you-think attitude of Sebastian and Kathryn. Cecile is not only innocent sexually, but carries herself with a naif's glassy-eyed wonder. The look on her face consistently gives the impression that Cecile is trying to do an algebra problem in her head.
The supporting cast do excellent work, and when they sing as a chorus, they are tight and always in tune. But it's too bad the Victoria has such lousy acoustics, or the sound system isn't up to snuff, because as with past Ray of Light shows, the band too often overpowers the vocals.
Despite the sound issues, Cruel Intentions is a very funny take on sexual power games, obsession, and revenge. The crowd on opening night lapped it up like Kathryn taking bumps of cocaine (hidden in the crucifix she wears), and I think you will too.
Cruel Intentions runs through October 1, 2023, at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays - Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with 2:00 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays. There will also be a performance Monday, September 18, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-70. For tickets and information, please visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.