As the Daily Show and Saturday Night Live have shown repeatedly, the best parodies don’t try to reinvent the wheel; instead, they tweak their source material with minor changes and let the unintentional comedy shine through. 50 Shades: The Musical! lampoons the “50 Shades of Grey” phenomenon with a raunchy script and game cast that spins E.L. James’ often ridiculous writing into howlingly funny stage comedy.
I’ll admit I entered the Warner Theater with a bit of trepidation. Based on my knowledge of the book’s plot and the throngs of buzzing female audience members, it’s fair to say I felt a bit out of place as a male in his late 20’s. Indeed, the first scene where friends Sheila O’Connor (“Carol”), Alexis Field (“Bev”), and Caroline Reade (“Pam”) discuss “50 Shades” at a boozy book club suggests a scene straight out of “Sex and the City”. But once the music starts, it quickly becomes clear that this is a comedy that picks no favorites…and pulls no punches.
The first big number “Open Your Book” blows the audience back in their seats with salacious lyrics and dance moves that leave nothing to the imagination. The three women sing the praises of James’ suburban ennui-busting novel as chiseled male dancers prance about the stage and seduce them in ways best discussed in private company. It’s a suitable launching pad for a show that grows more fearless as the story unfolds.
Soon protagonist Anastasia Steele enters the scene, carried aloft on Eileen Patterson’s clear soprano and strong comic chops. Patterson’s wide eyed naiveté and explicit lyrics combine to create the satisfying image of a Disney princess unwinding in Vegas after a long shift at Disneyworld. Once you hear her rendition of “There’s a Hole Inside of Me”, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Innocent Anastasia is balanced out by damaged billionaire Christian Grey, played by the bombastic Jack Boice. Boice’s version of Grey is a preening sex hound who flips the audience’s pre-existing image from the book on its head. Boice regularly brings the house down with a fearless combination of lusty crooning, lunges, twirls, and flying leaps as he details his X-rated plans for Ana. He has the audience completely in the palm of his hand by the start of Act II.
The two leads are supported by a game cast who truly sell the fiction of James’ melodrama. Alexis Field shines as Ana’s ditzy 20something friend Katherine Kavanaugh. Field is the Tequila-soaked devil on Ana’s shoulder, constantly trying to convert Ana to her boozing and profanity-laced ways. Her total commitment to the bad-girl role sustains the show’s raucous energy in the downtime between Ana and Christian’s heavily anticipated encounters.
Nick Semar adds a bit of Latin lunacy as José, Ana’s lusty Mexican friend. Semar struts the stage in an endless cycle of salsa or merengue poses. He maintains his riotous Ricky Martin-esque bravado even as he is rebuffed by Ana over and over again. The remaining cast members add several comic gems throughout the production, rounding out a strong group effort.
Aside from the energetic cast, the touring company’s production is fairly bare bones. The black stage features only a few chairs and a small bed/couch, forcing the audience to imagine Christian’s towering high-rise or his notorious Red Room of Pain. The lack of an actual scenic designer drives home the creative team’s lack of concern for fancy sets. Meanwhile, the three-piece band sits off to the side of the stage, providing ample support on piano, bass, and drums. The stripped down look might prove a negative for such a high-profile show, but I was laughing too hard to care.
Director Al Samuels has assembled a winning cast that pulls off the dirtiest, funniest production I’ve seen in a long time. Like the book it parodies, 50 Shades: The Musical! invites audience members to let down their hair and have a laugh at taboo topics usually confined to the bedroom. While I wouldn’t recommend bringing your kids, this show is a laugh-riot suitable for couples and friends of (nearly) all ages.
50 Shades: The Musical! was onstage at the Warner Theatre January 16 – 18, 2014.
50 Shades: The Musical! Book By: Amanda B. Davis, Emily Dorezas, Albert Samuels, Jody Shelton, Ashley Ward, Dan Wessels . Music and Lyrics by: Amanda B. Davis, Albert Samuels, Jody Shelton, Ashley Ward, Dan Wessels . Directed by Al Samuels . Produced by: Al Samuels, Emily Dorezas, Marshall Cordell . Executive Produced by Andrew Asnes . Reviewed by: Ben Demers.