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50 Shades! The Musical!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Casey Rogers, Alec Varcas, Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson, and Ashley Ward.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

It's rare in a world of "Not Another [Insert Genre Here] Movie" movies, but it does happen: A parody of something that's basically a parody itself can be funny on its own terms. Proving this at the moment is the new production of 50 Shades! The Musical! The Original Parody, which just opened at the Elektra Theatre at the Times Square Arts Center. Against all odds, the only thing about it that's ungainly or unwieldy is its title.

Yes, it's a not-even-barely-disguised riff on E.L. James's bondage-dripping 2011 romance novel 50 Shades of Grey, and yes it's the second one to hit the Theatre District in less than a year. But unlike its predecessor Cuff Me!, which continues to play at the Actors' Temple Theatre, this one both uses fully original songs (by five songwriters) and isn't ashamed to deeply skewer its source. That makes all the difference, even if it means extending James's 15 minutes of fame longer than should be absolutely necessary.

Luckily, 50 Shades! doesn't overstay its own welcome or overstate its case; it's done with in less than 100 minutes (including an intermission), and almost all of those minutes contain genuine humor. The framing device of three women (Chloe Williamson, Kaitlyn Frotton, and Ashley Ward)—two married, one divorced—who decide to read James for their book club is largely immaterial, though more than a little late-show frivolity is found from the repressed Carol (Ward, one of the song and book writers) unleashing her pent-up libido on some lucky(?) male member of the audience, and one of the score's best numbers finds the trio belting (high, and well) about the book's dubious virtues.

Of far more interest is the story of Anastasia Steele, the virginal hardware store worker, who falls into a world of kinky, S&M sex with the billionaire entrepreneur she interviews on behalf of her roommate Katherine (Frotton, slurry-speech perfection in the role). The wide-eyed Amber Petty successfully embodies Ana's college-girl naïveté before the imposing and, we're told, dashing Christian.

He's played, though, by Chris Grace, an actor who does not, uh, possess the gym-toned physique that drives Ana to new heights of lusty ecstasy. If the show, which was directed Al Samuels (another writer) and Rob Lindley, derives much of its silliness from the visual contrast between the rotund Grace and the more appropriate-looking Ana, Grace has the stern looks, authoritative speaking voice, and firm way with a song to convince as the character in all the other ways that matter.

Although this is a significant part of what makes the show work, perhaps even more important is that Ana's central dilemma—will she or will she not sign the lengthy contract Christian wants to make their activities official?—is pondered at length and treated seriously. (Well, not too seriously.) This gives the warm-mannered Petty an anchor for Ana's eye-rolling innocence, and Ana's actions (such as jumping out of a moving helicopter) become a lot funnier when they're the believable results of believable concerns on her part.

Really, though, that's about as high-minded as 50 Shades! gets. Otherwise, it's all about fulfilling the comedic needs of its spin-worthy source, which includes plenty of eye candy from choristers Adam Hyndman and Alec Varcas (for the ladies in the audience) and Casey Rogers (thoughtfully provided for the men), and the authors and directors give them and Tim Murray, credibly over the top as Ana's slow-stepping Latin admirer, José, plenty of choice bits of business of their own. And costume designer John Dunnett, who also designed the unremarkable budget-conscious set, has ensured that on the rare occasions the performers wear clothes, they're, um, well in keeping with the spirit of the evening. (Let's just say that lots of leather is involved.)

None of the songs is likely to become a standard, but spanning genres ranging from pop to flamenco to porn soundtrack to Gilbert and Sullivan, it's a surprisingly diverse bunch that never gets tiresome. The jokes are obvious (Ana's big "I want" solo is titled "There's a Hole Inside of Me," for example), but they do land, thanks to superb singing and choreography from Mindy Cooper that keeps the heat at a steady simmer throughout.

Not that this show ever gets too kinky—it knows it will never find the strongest hilarity in its subject if it gets too close to its excesses. (A few cringe-inducing quotes from the book are read aloud, however.) The object here is making you laugh, and at that it unquestionably succeeds. I'm not sure how many more parodies of James we need, or if in fact we don't have too many already, but brave theatregoers of any gender should rejoice that, rather that settling for being Not Another 50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades! instead beats its own dopey, delightful drum.

50 Shades! The Musical!
Elektra Theatre, 669 8th Avenue between 42 & 43 streets
Tickets and performance schedule at OvationTix

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