Your grandmother knows more than you think.
Of course, she’s skilled in all the typical forays of domesticity, of manners and pride, of decency and courtesy. But did you know – she also knows a thing or two in the bedroom?
“50 Shades! The Musical” – the parody of E.L. James’s popular “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, now on stage through Sunday at the 710 Main Theatre — reveals this uncomfortable truth in a whirlwind of clever comedy, cheesy dance steps, and lots of greased male skin.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with the best-selling books, you’re not likely to be shocked by what takes place on stage. There’s plenty of sexual suggestion, reference and demonstration – and not all of it innuendo. A thespian’s vocabulary is rarely this liberal. But this is a room of adults, and these are modern times. What’s a little bondage to break up a party?
The plot, ankle-deep and hardly worth poring over, has the mere suggestion of an arc: Anastasia Steel, an attractive, virginal college student, gets an education in unnecessary roughness by one Mr. Christian Grey, an older, attractive caller who has a few tricks (and toys) up his sleeve. His cold, charming wits of persuasion are enough to entice Anastasia – and every woman reading – into an underworld of sexual role-play.
If it sounds out of your league, guess again. If you think you’re immune to young Anastasia’s curiosity, or Grey’s cunning ways, you’re wrong. This is a show for anyone shamed by sexual desire, for those who know more X-rated vocabulary than they’d ever let on. This is for moms who trade secrets only over text message or at the playground, but who’d never share their barest feelings with their partner.
It might be a lot for popcorn “mom porn,” as it’s been called, to take on. Publishers and booksellers have both praised and skewered its widespread popularity. Call it American prudishness, or religious deviancy, or political conservatism — whatever it is, this is a product written expressly for the liberation of the American housewife. And that, ladies and gents, is a fine place to begin our show.
The stage version is smart primarily for its focus on the audience. It is as much a send-up of those who bought the books as it is of the books themselves. Any good parody walks that line between mocking its material and its medium. In this case, a few musical theater references too many – really, another “Les Mis” flag-waving finale? – feel obligatory. Elsewhere, the limitations of this low-budget production are hilariously referenced, and cleverly staged.
As for knowing its audience, it hits the nail on the head. The book’s premise is framed by the meta-narration of three sassy girlfriends and their latest book club selection (James’s novel). Emily Eden, Spenser Rose and Jessica Kemock play Bev, Pam and Carol, respectively, three archetypes to help wary audiences self-identify. All are comedic delights, playing the full range of sexual experience typically found in those martini-swigging, ladies-night trios.
Kemock’s inexperienced, recently dumped Carol is the funniest comedian of them all, and easily the one most newcomers to this franchise will be quickest to relate to. She, and surprisingly, not Anastasia, comes fullest circle with self-discovery and permission. But Caroline Reade, the understudy stepping in for Amber Nicole Petty, is a fine Anastasia; she finds and defines her own limits with character and growth. Her singing lacks the strength her confident, if inexperienced, character calls for, but she gets the job done.
The meat – or the men – of the show are just as funny. Chris Grace, a sarcastic, dry, rotund Asian-American, plays Grey entirely against type, further emphasizing the shallowness of this piece of literature. Grace flaunts his extra flesh without apologizing for his sexuality, either. Grace’s comedic sensibility touches down where you least expect it. In the blink of an eye, he goes from saying his lines to channeling a mocking frat boy, with wonderful, surprising results.
The simplicity of it all amounts to barely any stage time – the show runs 69 minutes (plus a 15-minute intermission) – or even distillment of message. It’s about sex, how everyone has it and how everyone wants it to be better, to be freer. Everyone. This audience doesn’t need to be convinced, just to acknowledge that they’re not alone. They already know what they want.
“50 Shades! The Musical”
∆∆∆ø (Out of four)
Through Sunday at 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St. Tickets are $37.50-$47.50 (Shea’s box office, Ticketmaster). For information, sheas.org.