Show Review: 50 Shades! The Musical — April 27 2013, Knoxville TN

I didn’t know quite what to expect going into 50 Shades! The Musical. Was this stage show going to be a mere cash-in, a coattail-ride upon the popularity of the blockbuster novel? I figured that – at worst – it would be good for a few laughs. So on April 27 I made the trip to Knoxville TN’s Bijou Theatre, accompanied by my friend and reading companion.

As we waited in line to pick up our tickets, I did a quick survey of the crowd gathered in the lobby. As my friend (but not I) suspected, the audience was overwhelmingly female, primarily in the 35-60 age range. And (save four women) completely white. Once we were seated, and as the room filled to near-capacity (this matinee showing was nearly, but not quite, sold out), we estimated that the ratio of females to males was about 4:1.

As the house lights dimmed, an offstage announcer made the standard admonishments about cell phones and so forth, but put a delightfully salacious spin on them: “please turn off any and all vibrating devices; after the show you can turn them on in the lobby, and leave them on as long as you need.” The tone for the evening — lighthearted, broad and very very raunchy – was thus established.

It’s no overstatement to call 50 Shades! The Musical uproarious. From the opening scene to the final curtain, it was belly laughs all the way. Well-paced and flawlessly executed, the show riffed on the many cliches and preposterous plot elements of E.L. James‘ book, and wrapped it all in songs and dance.

The writers of the show did not attempt to follow the book’s story line; instead they used it as inspiration. 50 Shades! The Musical alternated between a portrayal of three members of a women’s book club and interaction between broad parodies of the book’s main characters. If one of those characters (say, Anastasia’s rooommate or Grey) had a particular trait, the actor overdid it to great effect (e.g. repeated cries of “That’s bullshit!” or “Laters.”)

The show’s casting was inspired: when the Christian Grey character first made an appearance onstage, the audience was surprised to find a large, roundish Asian-American man. His roundness would be accentuated mid-show, during his toe-tapping showcase number, “I Don’t Make Love – I F**k,” delivered in a bright red spandex workout getup. The effect was not unlike seeing an Asian Chris Farley leading a Bob Fosse dance number.

The show was most definitely not for the faint of heart. Simulated sex acts abounded, both onstage and off, and the language was no-holds-barred raunchy. But the show’s goals demanded nothing less. Being the sort of person I am, I loved that, and bore not one ounce of sympathy for the man seated next to us. Clearly accompanying his wife against his better judgment, he squirmed uncomfortably in his seat throughout the show, and I didn’t hear him laugh at all. I could almost hear his silent thought: “My goodness me, I certainly hope my pastor doesn’t find out I’m here.” Truth be told, his discomfiture made a hilarious experience even funnier.

It could have been worse for the guy, though. He could have been seated up front, where he might have been pulled into the action. When the Elliot Grey character was having naughty sex in the aisle with Katherine Kavanagh, he leaned over, grabbed the left hand of a woman seated at the end of the aisle, and put her hand to work “helping” him in his efforts.

The show featured many such interactive elements; sometimes the actors would point to specific audience members and explain (sometimes in song, sometimes not) exactly the manner in which they planned to copulate with them. The audience howled. Though they were occasionally drowned out by the audience’s laughter, the song’s lyrics were extremely clever, sometimes in an I-saw-that-coming way, other times in unexpected ways.

And the broad physical comedy worked well, too: stage shows of this sort don’t benefit from subtlety, and of course the subject material is wholly lacking in subtlety. So when Ana made repeated attempts to touch Christian Grey, he leaned back in an exaggerated fashion, often emitting a pained, “Ewww.” Funny, funny stuff.

A fairly small cast (about ten players) handled all of the onstage action, using the barest of stage props, including a couch that occasionally served as a bed, a raised stage for dancing, and an assortment of, er, accessories such as whips, handcuffs and of course a feather-on-a-stick.

Like any good parody, 50 Shades! The Musical deftly navigated the path between outright mockery of its subject matter and an unashamed admiration for it. The tension between those two points of view was the basis for much of the show’s comedy, and it served to move the plot (such as it was) along, too. While the primary characters acted absurdly and often looked, well, less-than-sexy, behind them strode some very sexy dancers (a few males and one very lovely woman) who engaged in intricate choreography that included tango dancing and (once again) simulated sex acts.

All of the players were accomplished singers, adept at handling several demanding tasks simultaneously. They’d deliver their lines – expertly sensing the crowd’s reaction, and this often pausing for quite a long time to allow the volume of laughter or applause to subside – while singing and/or dancing.

The book was referenced here and there, often in sly ways.  At one point, Ana says (I’m paraphrasing slightly), “This is real life! Because if it were a book, it would be…really awful.” Very true: the book is quite wretched (or as Anastasia might say, “triple crap”), and unintentionally funny. 50 Shades! The Musical, by contrast, is delightful, expertly written, and very pointedly funny. A working knowledge of the book’s story would be helpful for a full appreciation of 50 Shades! The Musical, but it’s certainly not required. Though when it comes to musicals I have long considered myself in the not-a-fan category, I simply loved this show. And thinking again of that disproportionately female crowd, all I could think was, guys, you’re missing out. This was one good time. See it sooner than, er, laters, baby.

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