Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or handcuffed under one — you’ve probably heard of the literary sensation “50 Shades of Grey.” The trilogy of books from E.L. James may have started as “Twilight” fanfic, but with over 100 million copies sold worldwide and a big screen adaption due next year, it’s a bona fide phenomenon. Which makes it ripe for parody, courtesy of the clever and wildly entertaining “50 Shades! The Musical,” now running at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles.
“50 Shades!” is one of three parodies currently making the rounds, along with “Cuff Me: The ‘50 Shades of Grey’ Unauthorized Musical Parody” and “Spank! The ‘50 Shades’ Parody,” but “50 Shades!” has a leg up on the others, having premiered first in August 2012 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival before runs in Chicago and New York, where the musical recently opened Off Broadway. Coming from members of the comedy troupe Baby Wants Candy (which boasts such alumni as Rachel Dratch and Seth Meyers), the show is essentially an extended sketch — but in the best possible way.
Because James’ novel is notoriously thin on plot, “50 Shades!” beefs up the material with an amusing framing device: Three bored housewives are reading the novel in their book club. We then meet the story’s main characters, starting with virginal Anastasia Steele, played by the wonderful Eileen Patterson, channeling an “adorkble” vibe with clumsy manners and wide eyes.
She falls hard for gorgeous billionaire Christian Grey (Jack Boice), who wants to bring her into a BSDM relationship as his sex slave. The fact that Boice doesn’t have a model’s good looks and sports some extra weight (he bears more than a passing resemblance to Donal Logue) is the source of much of the script’s humor, as Boice strikes Atlas-like poses wearing little clothing. That joke wears thin fast, but fortunately Boice is a charismatic presence with a killer voice to match, and sustains the character beyond the gag.
Because it’s a parody of source material is mostly laughable to begin with, be prepared for lowbrow humor: Songs include Anastasia’s ballad of longing, “There’s a Hole Inside of Me.” There are plenty of meta jokes, too, as Anastasia proclaims at one point: “This is real life, not a book! If it were a book it would be terrible!” While not all the gags land, there are genuine chuckles and some real belly laughs over the show’s 100 minutes (or “approximately 69 minutes with intermission”).
Director Albert Samuels keeps the staging sparse and simple, and the lightweight concoction stays afloat largely because it takes its comedy seriously. Great care is put into making the musical numbers (by Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Dan Wessels, Jody Shelton and Ashley Ward) entertaining, and in ensuring that each songs moves the plot forward.
The cast is filled with fantastic comedic performers across the board. The housewives are played by Shelia O’Connor, Tiffany Dissette and Glennis McCarthy (in for Alexis Field on the night I attended) and prove just as entertaining as the story they’re framing. Nick Semar is a scene-stealing standout as Jose, a would-be Latin lover with a ridiculous accent. Semar’s verbal and physical comedy is sublime, even milking laughs from his character’s long, dramatic entrances and exits.
You don’t have to be familiar with the material to enjoy “50 Shades!,” though fans of the book will be rewarded by some of the direct references, such as Christian’s anthem “I Don’t Make Love,” taken from a line of dialogue in the story. Regardless, newcomers and fans alike should enjoy getting down and dirty with this talented company.