Review: ‘The Joys of Sex’

"The Joys of Sex" is a show that would have had auds clucking 30 years ago, with its naughty book and racy songs about a group of randy New Yorkers who dare to dabble in forbidden delights, only to discover that true love and commitment trump whips and chains.

“The Joys of Sex” is a show that would have had auds clucking 30 years ago, with its naughty book and racy songs about a group of randy New Yorkers who dare to dabble in forbidden delights, only to discover that true love and commitment trump whips and chains. But, alas, 1974 has come and gone — along with the moral stigma and social strictures against such exotic experimentation — which pretty much limits the show’s market to people who missed the sexual revolution the first time around.

Actually, that’s a pretty big audience pool to draw from, and if the show’s marketing strategy can be tweaked to reassure a skittish older demographic that the material is positively wholesome, road possibilities look good. As it stands, tuner’s pretense of offering authentic sexual titillation is sure to make younger and hipper auds feel they’ve been conned — which was the downtown reaction when it debuted at the Fringe Festival.

Duped or not, patrons should know what they’re in for once they get a load of Neil Patel’s tongue-in-cheek (but not-in-throat) sets, an amusingly overstated symphony of red draperies and lacquered screens and suggestively curved outlines. Lest the reassuring message of harmless merriment be lost, it is adroitly underlined by Donald Holder’s color-saturated lighting and David C. Woolard’s cartoon-cute costumes — visual cues to the slick superficiality of Jeremy Dobrish’s high-gloss production.

The actual cheating is largely confined to the score. Song titles announce a prurient interest in topics like bondage (“The Vault”), sexual appetite (“I Need It Bad”), deviance (“Kinks”), group sex (“The 3-Way”) and sexual adventurism (“In the Parlor Be a Lady, in the Bedroom Be a Whore”). But David Weinstein’s bland music could just as easily be set to nursery-rhyme lyrics, for all the heat it generates. And once they get past the suggestive wordplay, Melissa Levis’ lyrics expose themselves as prissy tips (in relentlessly rhyming couplets) on how straitlaced heteros can inject a tiny bit of spice into their conventional sex lives. Sounds sexy, but it all comes down to soft handcuffs and a fling with the girl next door.

In a legit revue, songs might have examined contempo sexual mores with more honesty and more incisive wit. But the show is a slave to a feel-good book (the joint effort of Levis and Weinstein) that puritanically insists on a romantic comedy context (and a morally conformist outcome) for its sexual hijinks.

Young marrieds Howard (Ron Bohmer) and Stephs Nolton (Stephanie Kurtzuba) are allowed to frolic with sexy neighbor April Jones (Jenelle Lynn Randall), if only to learn that marital fidelity is more satisfying than group sex and that a baby is the ultimate wish-fulfillment.

Dorky Brian Shapiro (David Josefsberg) is urged to pursue his secret sexual fantasies; but it’s only by being nice that he wins the girl of his dreams. Even April Jones, the seductive catalyst for all this fooling around, concludes that: “My female fantasy didn’t thrill me/Bad boys never fulfill me/I’m sick of feeling lonely and incomplete/Maybe I’ll try Mr. Funny and Sweet.”

What could be sweeter or less threatening? Not the performances, that’s for sure. While Randall projects a sly note of genuine lasciviousness as April, Stephs’ innocence forbids Kurtzuba to be anything but wholesome and cute. But the casting director must have looked far and wide to find two male thesps as pheromone free as their co-stars.

The Joys of Sex

Variety Arts Theater; 499 seats; $69


A Ben Sprecher, William P. Miller, Kenneth D. Greenblatt and Benjamin C. Singer presentation of a musical in one act, with music by David Weinstein, lyrics by Melissa Levis, book by Levis and Weinstein. Directed by Jeremy Dobrish.


Choreography by Lisa Shriver. Musical direction, Steven Ray Watkins; orchestrations & arrangements, David Weinstein. Sets, Neil Patel; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, T. Richard Fitzgerald; production stage manager, Katherine Lee Boyer. Opened May 17, 2004. Reviewed May 15. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.


Howard Nolton, Irving - Ron Bohmer Brian Shapiro, Pleasure Boy, Granny - David Josefsberg Stephs Nolton, Gladys, Brandi - Stephanie Kurtzuba April Jones, Mistress Pain, Candi - Jenelle Lynn Randall
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