Performances are all-around sparkling, a few of them quite impressive indeed; songs are catchy, their lyrics a mix of cleverness and four-letter-word raunch; a live band provides expert musical backup; and the cocktail-swigging, mostly female audience goes nearly as wild as they would at a bachelorette party. Still, whether or not you decide to see 50 Shades! The Musical, the often outrageously funny spoof of the phenomenally popular Fifty Shades Of Grey, will depend on your wiliness to pay as much as $85 a ticket for an under-90-minute show with all the production values of a Fringe Festival offering produced on the cheap, on the very cheap.
The creative team saves oodles of bucks by billing 50 Shades! The Musical as a parody of E.L. James’ mega-bestseller (and more specifically as “The Original Parody,” the better to distinguish it from its competitors Spank! The 50 Shades Parody and Cuff Me The 50 Shades Unauthorized Parody).
As for what’s being parodied, you’d have to have been living under a rock over the past several years not to have heard of the trilogy of erotic novels (Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed are the sequels) depicting the sadomasochistic relationship of virginal college senior Anastasia “Ana” Steele and handsome young entrepreneur Christian Grey, who offers Ana a contract to become his partner in BDSM. (That’s Bondage, Discipline, Sadism, and Masochism for the uninitiated.)
50 Shades! The Musical (book by Albert Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Emily Dorezas, Jody Shelton, and Ashley Ward) imagines a book club (Glennis McCarthy as Bev, Sheila O’Connor as Carol, and Tiffany Dissette as Pam), who pick James’ trilogy-opener over Martha Stewart and Anne Frank because face it, who needs more of Martha’s recipes and as for Anne’s diary, they can do without that downer of an ending, right?
Before long, our book club gals have conjured up none other than Ana and Christian themselves (Eileen Patterson and Jack Boice), along with Ana’s best friend Katharine (McCarthy again) and their photographer amigo José (Nick Semar), who’s got a Latino crush on Ana … and we’re off and running.
“There’s A Hole Inside Of Me” is the first of 50 Shades! The Musical’s ten very hummable songs (music and lyrics by Samuels, Davis, Dan Wessels, Shelton, and Ward), in which our innocent young heroine laments that “This hole inside of me needs to be filled up. I’ve got sugar and tea, but no cream in my cup.” You get the picture.
It doesn’t take long for Ana to make the acquaintance of Christian, who takes one look at the pert and pretty brunette and realizes (in “Could This Be The One?”) that she might just be what Dr. Love ordered as the cure to all his ills. Meanwhile, José pursues our leading lady with South Of The Border fervor in “Mi Amor.” (“You don’t have to have a ring’a upon your fing’a to ride my pinga, mi amor.”)
Still, when decisions come to be made, it’s Christian whom Ana decides to follow into the night (much as Christine followed The Phantom Of The Opera into his lair), only to discover that if it’s romantic lovemaking she’s after, she’d better look elsewhere since, as our hero puts it ever so bluntly in the Act One closer “I Don’t Make Love,” “I don’t make love, I fuck.” “He fucks.” “I fuck.” “He fucks.” (That’s the girl-group trio of Bev, Carol, and Pam providing backup “He fucks.”)
And there you have Act One, though with a Fringe Festival-brief running time of a mere 69 minutes (or so we’re told with a wink), 50 Shades! The Musical’s 15-minute intermission serves primarily to persuade ticketholders that they’ve gotten their 84-minute money’s worth. (The show actually runs closer to 90, to be precise.)
Not having seen either Spank! The 50 Shades Parody or Cuff Me The 50 Shades Unauthorized Parody, I can’t tell you how 50 Shades! The Musical’s competitors have imagined their Christian Grey. In 50 Shades! The Musical, he turns out to be quite the opposite of the Christian of hundreds of millions of women’s dreams, and nowhere near as studly as hottie Irish actor Jamie Dornan, who’s set to play him in the upcoming big screen adaptation. No, leading man Boice is a cross between Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Jack Black, his avoirdupois revealed in all its heavy, hairy splendor by a belly-revealing spandex workout leotard, a particularly game Boice clearly having a a rollicking good time letting it all hang out. (Perhaps not surprisingly, publicity photos make a point of not featuring Boice, truth in advertising be damned.)
As for those women (and gay men) in the audience whose boat might not be floated by an overweight Christian Grey, 50 Shades! The Musical makes sure to feature the hunky (and frequently shirtless) duo of BJ Gruber and Datus Puryear, and for any straight males or lesbians in the audience, there’s sultry, sexy Caroline Reade as Catherine’s Inner Goddess.
Less eye-pleasing is 50 Shades! The Musical’s non-existent scenic design. I’m not trying to be clever when I say that they could have done better at the Salvation Army than the raised single bed mattress standing in for sofa and bed on the same (and now virtually bare) stage* where America’s finest scenic designers’ creations have been displayed. Katie Ringwood’s lighting design is okay, as is the production’s minimal (unbilled) costume and wig design, though McCarthy isn’t even given a second wig to distinguish between Carol and Katharine.
Fortunately (and this is a big fortunately), director Samuels nails the musical’s antic, frantic tone as does his cast of nine, all of whom merit a big thumbs up. (Or should that be fists up?) There’s no denying how funny 50 Shades! The Musical is, nor how hummable and hilarious its songs are. Particularly ingenious are the Phantom/Andrew Lloyd Webber-spoofing “Follow Him” and the Gilbert & Sullivan-esque “Red Room.” (“Whips and chains and dildos and some other things I’d put in you. Kiss you, slap you, dominate you, then I’d tell you ‘I love you.’”) There’s even a “One More Day” moment straight out of Les Miz.
As for the cast, they don’t come any more winning than leading lady Patterson, who looks pretty-as-a-picture as Ana, acts the part with infectiously wide-eyed innocence and verve, and sings it with gorgeous Broadway-ready pop soprano pipes.
Boice’s Christian may be an acquired taste, but the actor’s comedic chops are undeniable, and he’s having such fun grossing us out that we can’t help but laugh along.
O’Connor’s mousy Carol and Dissette’s big-haired Pam are fabulous too, the latter’s big belty pipes shown off to perfection in the bluesy “50 Shades!”
As for Gruber, Puryear, and Reade, all three are terrific dancers, and Gruber gets to double as Christian’s brother Elliott, who’s got bulging muscles where Christian just bulges.
Last but not least are original New York cast members McCarthy and Semar, the former getting the plum assignment of playing both Bev and Katharine, which she does to crowd-pleasing delight. (McCarthy orgasms to more audience laughs than anyone since Meg Ryan fake-came for Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally.)
As for the sensacional Semar, not since The Drowsy Chaperone’s Aldolpho has there been as outrageously funny a take on the Latin lothario as José, whose every step is poesía en movimiento (at least it’s poetry in motion in his own mind) and whose rendition of “Mi Amor” is the showstoppingest of showstoppers.
Choreographers Joanna Greer and Brad Landers get high marks for multiple dance numbers in multiple genres as does musical director Riley Thomas and the onstage three-piece band.
Rob Lindley is associate director. Ringwald doubles as stage manager. Chris Landry is sound technician, Jim Harrison company manager, and Andrew Asnes executive producer.
I must admit to having had a fabulous time at 50 Shades! The Musical, and if you’re similarly unprudishly-minded and, more importantly, if you don’t mind paying as much as you would for a major national tour at the Ahmanson or Pantages (my tickets were, thankfully, comps), I can pretty much guarantee that you will too.
*50 Shades! The Musical is a guest production at CTG’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.
March 4, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger