In the heart of downtown San Francisco, at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, you can hear a pouty, rotund Asian man rhyme “jizz on your belly” with “Ghirardelli.” Wait a few moments, and you can hear him sing — in a ’70s soul style — the geographically and anatomically explicit line, “Sexy ladies in San Jose, I’ll spend all night in your pussy.” Welcome to “50 Shades! The Musical” — the musical parody of the middle-aged woman’s midday masturbation delight, E.L. James’ “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
For those who haven’t read (I guess you can call it that) the book or shamefully skimmed it on the computer late at night, here’s the gist (or, jizzst). Naive ingenue and porn-name ready Anastasia Steele gets involved with a mysterious gazillionaire named Christian Grey. What then proceeds involves the following words, though not necessarily in this order: “nipple-clamps,” “chocolate fudge brownie sex,” “Submissives R Us,” “crack-whore mothers” and the phrase, “I don’t make love; I fuck… hard.” The book is everything you’ve heard and more. It’s absurd, illogical and, as the musical’s director Al Samuels correctly judges, “so ripe for making fun of it.”
And that’s exactly what Samuels and his team have done. They’ve created a musical so outlandish, vulgar and clever that it nearly surpasses the insanity of the book. Instead of getting tied up with needless context or any sentimentality, “50 Shades! The Musical” feels like the best kind of broad parody — like if Weird Al or Mel Brooks were to enter a deep cavern of sexual depravity. At one point in the show, a shirtless, chiseled man (Elliott Grey, played by Matthew Nolan) dry humps a young woman practically on top of the audience. Sure, it’s “crass,” as the woman sitting behind me chided, but it’s also uninhibited in inventive ways.
“It’s easy to make slapstick, dirty jokes,” Samuels told The Daily Californian. “Our piece is dirtier. It jacks up parts of the book, and we push the envelope as far as we can, but what is a challenge for writing a musical people care about is maintaining the relationship and characters you care about.”
Now, it’s difficult to say whether the audience truly, deeply cares about the musical’s version of Christian Grey (a petulant, stocky man who dons a slick red wrestling singlet) or Anastasia Steele (think Amy Adams in “Enchanted” mixed with the stupidity of really any barnyard animal). Mixed in with the three “Real Housewives”-esque women who make up the frame narrative, these aren’t characters with Kristen Stewart angst, but they are wonderful, engaging and memorable characters.
There are little details in the show, like the random decision to have Christian pudgy and wearing a wrestling unitard, that reveal the improv background of the creative team. Samuels and his fellow co-writers hail from the Chicago-based group Baby Wants Candy — an improv ensemble noted for their spontaneous 60-minute musicals. You can see that loose impromptu sensibility on stage in “50 Shades!” You can see it when Chris Grace, as Christian Grey, hams up the nipple play during his rousing number “I Don’t Make Love” or the comedic timing of Jessica Kemock as the nebbish housewife (actually, ex-housewife) in mom jeans. To quote her character, Carol, E.L. James’ book has everything, “sex and … chauffeurs.” Well, the musical version of the book has pretty much everything too — from a song called “There’s a Hole Inside of Me” to a dance number that involves Christian walking Anastasia with a spiked dog collar. Yes, this seems insane and foolish. But, like the book, it’s just so much fun. After the show, I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad I came.”
Contact Jessica Pena at [email protected].