Constantine Rousouli as Sebastian Valmont
(Photo: Jenny Anderson)

Nineties nostalgia is so ubiquitous that we don’t really care to question why anymore. But there could be a scientific explanation for why, on a recent rainy Saturday night, a diverse mix of people were lined up outside of (Le) Poisson Rouge to see Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience, which has just extended its Off-Broadway run for the third – and what producers threaten is the last – time.

In a 2013 New York magazine article, Jennifer Senior explored the “reminiscence bump,” and the idea that some part of ourselves are always stuck in high school. Just before adolescence, we experience a rush of activity in the prefrontal cortex, making us particularly impressionable, Senior explains. We start to judge things like movies, books, and music, and integrate them into our identities.

And then there’s the fact that the rush of dopamine in the brain during adolescence makes everything feel more intense.

That’s why aging jocks and theater kids alike aren’t just going out to see the Cruel Intentions musical, they’re returning for a second or a third time to sing along to songs by Britney Spears, TLC, and Backstreet Boys. They’re here to relive their youth. And there’s no better place for that than a ’90s jukebox musical.

Carrie St. Louis & Sebastian Rousouli in Cruel Intentions. (Photo: Jenny Anderson)[/caption]William Benjamin, who was at LPR to see the show for the first time, put it bluntly: “We’re ’90s babies and we love this shit.”

Based on Roger Kumble’s 1999 cult hit film, Cruel Intentions, the show premiered in Los Angeles in 2015 and played a pop-up engagement in New York in early 2017. It returned for its Off-Broadway premiere in November. Originally scheduled to close after January 29, the Cruel Intentions musical is now playing through April 8, with a national tour in the works.

The show’s source material stars Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Ryan Phillippe, and tells a story of twisted teen sex, manipulation, and romance. The jukebox musical – developed by Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin, and writer/director Kumble – transports the audience back to 1999, and in its clever merging of song and story, it ends up being more fun than the movie it’s based on. But with old characters, old music, and old fashion, also come old stereotypes and dated slang.

John Lynes, who was a teenager when the film came out, was at the musical for a second helping. “I saw it, probably, three weeks ago. And I loved it so much that I brought my partner and all of our friends out,” Lynes said. “It’s literally the soundtrack of my teenage years.”

Carrie St. Louis & Sebastian Rousouli in Cruel Intentions. (Photo: Jenny Anderson)

The musical features 24 songs sampled from the ’90s, and the music is just as much a draw as the nearly word-for-word staging of the movie. “When I was younger it was definitely a sexual awakening for me, too,” said Alany Coello, a first-timer at the show. “I had a huge crush on Sarah Michelle Gellar in that role.”

In the past five years, both Off-Broadway and Broadway stages have seen musicals based on movies that were defining of teen culture in their times – all of them, coincidentally, set in high school. Heathers, the 1988 cult classic, was adapted into a musical with original music and ran for six months Off-Broadway in 2014. And next month, Tina Fey’s 2004 hit Mean Girls will premiere in musical form on Broadway after a trial run in Washington D.C. last fall.

But high school is not exactly a painless experience for many people. And some of the things that defined teen culture 10, 20, 30 years ago, make people cringe today – and not just in a what was I thinking getting a perm way.

In The Daily Beast’s review of the Cruel Intentions musical, criticism of the show’s use of slurs like “fag” and “lesbian” sometimes overshadowed what the reviewer considered to be all of the show’s pros – the song choices, the vocal performances, and the sheer fun of it all, among others.

For some, however, those not-so-PC moments are all part of the ’90s experience.

“They said ‘fag’ and that would be bad now, but that’s the way it was,” said Scott Forest, another first-timer at the Cruel Intentions musical.

Dave Ridings, who came to the show with Scott, was laughing, rather than cringing, at those moments.

“I actually thought it was funny, cause it’s like, how inappropriate! What terrible dressers were we, how inappropriate were we!” he said. “It’s just a different kind of world and mindset, and that’s what it was. That’s the story that they’re telling.”

(Photo: Jenny Anderson)

Rene Mayorga and John Siebuhr were both teenagers when the film came out, and are no strangers to the ’90s jukebox genre, having seen musical adaptations of both Saved By The Bell and Full House.

“It’s what it is,” Siebuhr said, referring to the show’s dated slurs. “If you’ve seen the movie, you already know what to expect. So you can’t be mad about a joke from a movie from twenty years ago, in a show about that movie. Or at least understand that it was a different time.”

Mayorga disagreed. “I think you gotta relate to the new period, the new people.”

Jessie Shelton, who recently finished her run playing the sexually-bewildered ingénue Cecile, also struggled with figuring out how the 19-year-old film translates on stage today. After an early preview of the show, Shelton says she sat down with Lauren Zakrin, who plays Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar’s role), and Kumble, to discuss issues that come up in 2018 when looking back at a script written in 1998.

“There was some text from the film that definitely got into victim blaming territory and we wanted to find a way to stay true to the story while avoiding such problematic language/ideas, if you will,” Shelton said.

“I think it is a fine line,” Zakrin added. “There is a way to use these old and sometimes inappropriate jokes in a way that effectively comments on ‘the past.’ If you aren’t saying something new about these things, something progressive, then you risk looking ignorant, stuck in the past, and like you’re trying to get a cheap laugh.”

Shelton wanted her character’s first sexual experience with the story’s semi-villain, Sebastian, to be a “win” for Cecile, rather than being an instance of one of Sebastian’s “conquests.”

The song and dance number that has Cecile celebrating her first orgasm – a triumphant performance that I won’t spoil here – drew the most applause of the whole night.

“It’s up to you as the viewer whether or not we were successful, but certainly playing it that way gave me more to work with as an actor and allowed me, as a woman in 2018, to make a bit more peace with this part of the storyline,” Shelton says.

Still, Shelton has personal reservations about some of the script’s other outdated aspects.

“Much of the racial and homophobic jokes were not changed, which I personally find very problematic being a queer woman myself who happens to be in a biracial marriage,” Shelton says. “But that’s where the good old nostalgia kicks in.”

“Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience” is playing at (Le) Poisson Rouge through April 8. Tickets start at $39.