Los Angeles Theater Review: 50 SHADES! THE MUSICAL (Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City)

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by Paul Birchall on March 1, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


In my day job as a public librarian, I can tell you with certainty there is nothing more dreaded than finding E. L. James’ turgid lust romancer Fifty Shades of Grey in the book drop after some woman’s book group has read it.  The condition those books are returned in!  The limp, slightly damp pages.  The dewy, vaguely sinister stains on the front cover.  The split-cracked book binding which has the volume flip open to the Ben Wa Balls Scene.  Disgusting?  You want to wear gloves to protect you from the bio-hazard.

Some of customers who return the book in person are so ashamed that they look down on their feet.  Others fix you with a beady stare, their beaky noses twitching and their tongues waggling.  “Oh my lord,” one elderly crone leered at me upon handing me a particularly dog-eared copy of Fifty Shades.  “That is sooooome book!”

Yes, Fifty Shades is a bona fide literary phenomenon.  “At last women are reading,”  the fans crow, as though folks are actually reading the books and not just browsing the dirty bits while they flick their bean.

Eileen Patterson and Nick Semar in "50 Shades! The Musical" at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Invariably when there’s a phenomenon of this sort, some wag will attempt to create a musical parody of it.  My favorite of this rather tired genre was the now almost forgotten hit O.J.: The Musical, which played for over a year a couple of decades ago.  The musical parody at hand–credited in book and music to Albert Samuels, Amanda B. Davis, Dan Wessels, Emily Dorezas, Jody Shelton, and Ashley Ward–is an attempt to lightheartedly spoof both the franchise that is Fifty Shades while also parodying the book itself.  It’s not the worst idea for a comic tour de force, and, in fact, director Albert Samuels’ production is as crisp and as tight as the girl’s bottom is before the Ben Wa Balls are inserted.

First, a word of confession:  As a Professional Theater Critic, I tried to do my due diligence by reading the book first.  I managed precisely three pages before I burst into scornful laughter and had to put the book down.  I would actually have thrown it across the room, but, alas, as an eBook, the damage to my wall would have been inestimable and hard to explain.  I skipped ahead about 100 pages to some scene in which the man sort of puts something inside the lady–and I just had to shut the book again.  This is modern literature?  And, really, how excellent for the Kirk Douglas Theatre to continue its tradition of presenting challenging and thought-provoking works on their stage.

Sheila O'Connor, Eileen Patterson, Tiffany Dissette, and Alexis Field in "50 Shades! The Musical" at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

The play opens as a trio of suburban hausfraus (Sheila O’Connor, Alexis Field, Tiffany Dissette, hilariously caparisoned in mom-pants and hideous mom-wigs) settle down to read this month’s Book Group offering, which, unlike Amy Tan’s novels, actually consists of spanking, wanking, and tons of women-empowering orgasms.  Before long, the sedate, generally sexually unfulfilled housewives are hooting and hollering, yowling like horny cats, and enjoying better rolls in the hay with their dumpy hubbies.  All in song, too.

Meanwhile, as the ladies read the book, the story is acted for our delectation and delight (such as it is).  Innocent college virgin Anastasia Steele (Eileen Patterson) interviews for a class the wealthy, powerful tycoon Christian Grey (Jack Boice), and it is not long before they commence a torrid affair.  However, it turns out that Grey is one of literature’s great S & M freaks (though he scarcely holds a candle to De Sade, when you think about it).

Grey woos Anastasia with charisma and treats, and then has her sign a contract allowing him to do whatever he wants with her.  Now, me, I’d be worried that I had accidentally been tricked into a life of doing the dude’s laundry and preparing his dinner, but in this instance, the contract allows him to spank her, spurt semen all over her face, and, what else..?  Oh, yes, he is allowed to use bits of her body as a sort of handbag or storage unit, I believe.

The Cast of "50 Shades! The Musical" at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

This is ultimately a parody, and, as such, it would almost be impossible for the piece to be unfunny.  I mean, staging it as a real play would just be hilarious enough, you’d think.  And yet, this campy and leering production is almost thuddingly lacking in humor–just as it is simultaneously lacking in edge while also being oddly disturbing (and not in an erotic way).  There are perhaps two good jokes in evidence.  The idea of the bland housewives turning into sexually voracious man-eaters is quite droll.  And the director’s core idea of having Christian Grey, the supposedly charismatic, sexually irresistible male lead, be played by a calculatedly overweight, unphotogenic, hair-and-sweat-covered man pig is indeed surprising.  However, these gags last about two minutes; after that, the work’s parody is threadbare indeed.  In fact, the idea of having someone “miscast” as Grey soon becomes simply tedious to endure; it feels like a mistake and undercuts any sparkle and fun.

The score is nicely peppy, but is basically a simplistic collection of easy, snarky, double entendre lines.  “There’s a hole inside of me waiting to be filled!” warbles Patterson’s nicely off kilter Anastasia, and you sure know what kind of a hole she’s talking about.  Boice commendably plays his Grey as though he’s Meatloaf from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  He actually has a great, rock star tenor voice, and it’s hilarious when, during a sleazy moment, he waggles his tongue and wiggles his fingers at Anastasia, conveying maximum perversity with a glance. And, yet, he’s simply miscast in the part; after the one joke of his being totally unlike our mental image of Grey is over, he simply distracts and confuses in the part.

Sheila O'Connor, Caroline Reade, Tiffany Dissette, BJ Gruber, and Alexis Field in "50 Shades! The Musical" at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

Elsewhere, the plot surprisingly trudges along (and that’s as much a flaw of the book as of the production).  But even more unforgivable is the piece’s unexpected blandness.  Although much of the language is foul and sexual, the work misses edge and excitement, failing both as a satire and as a regular musical.  It’s a Saturday Night Live skit that outlasts its welcome by over an hour. That said, probably at least some of the problem is the fact that the comparatively cavernous theater is steadfastly the wrong venue for this sort of show, which might fare better in some 99-seat attic theater at 10:30 at night, with an audience of affable drunks.  That’s not what this show gets here, and the results are anything but sexy–or funny.

[Editor’s Note: Here is Stage and Cinema’s review of another Fifty Shades parody, Spank!, in Chicago.]

photos by Ed Krieger

50 Shades! The Musical – The Original Parody
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City
scheduled to end on March 30, 2014
for tickets, call (213) 972-4488 or visit www.50ShadesMusical.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael M. Landman-Karny March 5, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Mr. Birchall’s review is actually too kind to this production. Gags were not funny for even two seconds. The sex jokes were written by a bunch of sixth graders (loud cunnilingus hah hah; hard-driving intercourse from behind, hah hah). The staging was virtually non-existent. I have heard of bus-and-truck sets but this set looked like it came out of somebody’s station wagon. This show was virtually unwatchable.


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