Tuesday, April 1, 2014

50 Shades! - A smart, raucous party musical

By Rob Hartmann
Photos by Matthew Murphy

A few years ago, I was sitting waiting for my flight in the gate area in a Midwestern airport during a layover. The woman next to me was reading Fifty Shades of Grey. A woman sitting across from us pulled her copy out of her bag and exchanged a knowing look with the woman next to me. Another woman pulled out a copy a few seats down. Winks and giggles. Another woman pulled out her copy, and the sequel. A fifth woman joined the pack. The woman next to me whispered apologetically, “It’s just so… good.” I hadn’t really heard of the book before that moment, but it was clear that it was a phenomenon.

The latest manifestation of the Grey craze is the frothy, brash satire 50 Shades! The Musical, billed as “The Original Parody of the Greatest Novel Ever Written.” Created by members of the improv group Baby Wants Candy while the troupe was in Edinburgh performing another show, 50 Shades! is a smart, raucous party musical that deftly skewers E.L. James’s “mommy-porn” bestseller. I confess I have never read the book — but 50 Shades! can be enjoyed by fans, haters and non-readers alike.

The show begins with a trio of book club members (Kaitlyn Frotton, Chloe Williamson and Ashley Ward) who decide to take on Fifty Shades of Grey. Williamson, rocking a Courteney Cox wig, gets things rolling with sharp comic dancing and rockstar vocals. Frotton also appears as bedhead-in-a-bathrobe roommate Katherine Kavanaugh, with a vocal-fry voice like a pan of bacon. Co-creator Ward, as hapless bookclub member Carol, stands out with goofball charm like an American Tracey Ullman.

Amber Petty and Chris Grace take on the roles of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Petty is a wide-eyed wonder channeling the sweet naivete of young Goldie Hawn with the baby-voice breathiness of Amy Adams. Grace rules the stage as the bondage-obsessed billionaire. He struts through his numbers, including a Rocky Horror-style down and dirty rock-n-roll anthem, with a great voice and spot-on comic timing. By the time he appears in a wrestling singlet which leaves nothing to the imagination, Chris Grace has the audience in the palm of his hand.

Tim Murray is a comic standout as Anastasia’s tango-dancing and flashbulb-popping admirer Jose. There is also plenty of eye candy on display: Adam Hyndman and Alec Varcas go shirtless for much of the show, exhibiting physiques that are normally only seen on comic-book superheroes. Casey Renee Rogers, as the Inner Goddess, shows off actual dance chops in the dream ballet (yes, there’s a dream ballet) while poured into a patent leather dominatrix outfit (John Dunnett designed the costumes, as well as the sets.)

Co-directors Al Samuels and Rob Lindley keep the energy turned up to 11 and never let the pace falter. The show doesn’t just parody Fifty Shades of Grey; there are sly references to Phantom, Les Miz and there’s even a helicopter. Mindy Cooper’s choreography finds comedy in small moments, while making the most out of the limited space. The cast proves that New York is home to insanely talented actors: you would not expect a group this funny to also be able to sing as well as they do. This cast gives every screlter on Broadway a run for their money.

The group-written score mixes Motown with musical theater parody, along with a dash of Gilbert & Sullivan. Music director Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards leads a rocking band, featuring Michael Shapiro on drums and Lavondo Thomas on bass.

The Elektra Theatre at the Times Square Arts Center has a bar area, as well as movie-theater-style drink holders at your seat. This show is one to see while having a few drinks with your friends. 50 Shades!  shows its improv-comedy roots — it is smart, sharp, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and knows when to wrap it up. The show zips by, with all cylinders firing at every moment (I imagine the cast has to be exhausted after every performance — they go all out.) Bachelorette parties, girls-night-out, and yes, book clubs should be flocking to this show. 50 Shades! delivers the goods.

Al Samuels, Emily Dorezas, Marshall Cordell, Andrew Asnes, Brett McDonald, Rob Kolson present 50 Shades! The Musical: The Original Parody.

Music & Lyrics by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Dan Wessels, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Written by Al Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Emily Dorezas, Jody Shelton & Ashley Ward.
Featuring David Andino, Kaitlyn Frotton, Chris Grace, Adam Hyndman, Tim Murray, Amber Petty, Casey Renee Rogers, Alec Varcas, Ashley Ward & Chloe Williamson.
Costume & Set Design: John Dunnett.
Sound Design: Matt Kraus.
Lighting Design: Herrick Goldman.
Musical Director: Michael Thomas Murray.
Choreographer: Mindy Cooper.
Co-Directors: Al Samuels & Rob Lindley.

Elektra Theatre at Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd Street at Eighth Avenue. www.50ShadesTheMusical.com

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