'Cruel Intentions' - Ray of Light Theatre's dark '90s jukebox bop

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday September 12, 2023
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Anne Norland and the 'Cruel Intentions' ensemble (photo: Jon Bauer)
Anne Norland and the 'Cruel Intentions' ensemble (photo: Jon Bauer)

"Vile, vacuous!" exclaimed the Detroit Free Press.

"A 90210 rerun on Viagra," hissed the San Jose Mercury News.

"Great glittering gobs of cheap," hocked the New York Post.

There's a delicious, wicked alchemy that can turn condemnation to catnip.

That's certainly what happened to the panties-in-a-knot pans film that critics spewed at 1999's "Cruel Intentions."

The horndog teen riff on "Dangerous Liaisons" not only earned back seven times its production budget in its original release, but spawned two screen sequels and a jukebox musical now making its Bay Area debut in a Ray of Light production at the Victoria Theatre.

"We've had great luck with musicals adapted from cult films," said Ray of Light's namesake and artistic director, Shane Ray, pointing to the likes of "Heathers," "Carrie" and "American Psycho."

(Not to mention the stage-to-film-and-back "Rocky Horror Show," which has become a company staple, the latest, immersive version of which will open at Oasis just five days after "Cruel Intentions" closes.)

Many theaters in the Bay Area and nationwide have been struggling to fill seats since the pandemic, but Ray of Light roared back to life last year with a crowd-pleasing production of "Kinky Boots."

Unlike most local companies, which rely on charitable patrons, Ray said that "Our shows are about 90 percent funded by ticket sales."

While the company's past offerings have included more cerebral works, like "Assassins" and a stunning "Caroline, or Change," Ray feels that right now "people are still hungry for big, fun entertainment. Look at the Eras tour. Obviously, a lot of that has to do with Taylor Swift in particular, but I think there's also a desire to have this upbeat, energetic group experience."

At the same time, one of Ray of Light's hallmarks is productions that lean a bit to the dark side, and, in retrospect, "Kinky Boots" may have swayed a bit too far toward the sunny."

Ray hopes that "Cruel Intentions" will strike an ideal balance between the Swift and the sinister.

"The story is dark," he said. "The characters are manipulative and conniving. Honestly, they're assholes. But it's fun and cheeky and full of '90s hits."

The score includes songs made famous by No Doubt, Backstreet Boys, TLC, and Christina Aguilera among others.

"It's a head bobbing kind of show," said Ray.

Sammy Prince and Doug Greer in 'Cruel Intentions' (photo: Jon Bauer)  

True community theater
"Something that's always stood out about Ray of Light is that our shows appeal to more than just theater people," noted Leslie Waggoner, director of "Cruel Intentions" and choreographer for several past company productions.

While this can partly be attributed to shrewd programming that's often tied to familiar media properties, the Victoria Theater's location in the heart of the Mission District is no doubt a factor as well.

Before and after shows, and during intermission, Ray of Light audiences crowd the 16th Street sidewalk, exuding rock show enthusiasm and piquing curiosity in a neighborhood where passersby are not the graying crowd associated with most local theaters.

"I think we've got a lot of people in our audiences who don't think of themselves as theatergoers," said Ray. "For them, going to Ray of Light is going out to have a good time."

At the same time, the company's commitment to high production standards has helped it attract some of the Bay Area's best theater talent, both on stage and backstage. "Cruel Intentions" offers a lavish fashion show of '90s styles, with more than 200 pieces created by costume designer Sara Altier.

The company has served as a stepping stone in the careers of several nationally known talents: Ray of Light alumni include James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony as the Genie in "Aladdin"; Beth Behrs of television's "2 Broke Girls"; and Taylor Iman Jones, a Bay Area native who later moved to New York where she's had roles in "Groundhog Day," "Head Over Heels" and "Six" on Broadway.

"We try to provide a really fun playground for actors and artists to work in," said Ray. "And I think our audiences sense that feeling and share in the fun."

'Cruel Intentions,' through Oct. 1. $20-$70. Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. www.rayoflighttheatre.com

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