Revels in a Grey Area

The satirical musical Cuff Me: The Fifty Shades of Grey Unauthorized Musical Parody has popped up almost as quickly as a topical bit on Saturday Night Live, and it’s best, perhaps, to think of it as a goofy SNL sketch that lasts 90 minutes. Fifty Shades of Grey, is, of course, the 2012 erotic trilogy by E.L. James about the initiation of its heroine, Anastasia, into submissive sex with the rich, handsome Christian Grey. By many accounts—including those of the narrators of Cuff Me—James’s self-published works feature turgid writing, light-years from the explorations of sex written by D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. But then who would come to Lady Chatterley’s Lover: The Unauthorized Musical Parody? Probably not the middle-aged to elderly women who lined up after the show to have their programs signed by the charming cast of four.

Any parody promises silliness, and Sonya Carter’s production delivers. Carter keeps the action moving at the speed of farce, which is a good thing, because the plot neither requires nor deserves a lot of thought. The show is at its strongest musically; the writers Bradford McMurran, Jeremiah Albers, and Sean Michael Devereux have fitted their lyrics to well-known pop hits, from Madonna’s Like a Virgin to Frank Loesser’s Baby, It’s Cold Outside to La Vida Loca. (On occasion, however, the lyrics are hard to follow, partly because of the swiftness and partly because of the sound design.) The choreography, which is uncredited, suggests that the energetic cast all have advanced degrees in writhing. They also wiggle, jump up and down, swivel their hips, and occasionally twist nipples. The abundance of pelvic thrusts, flicked tongues, and hands smoothing torsos may grow overly familiar as the show progresses, but then sex is the only topic at hand. 

The action is framed by two women in bright track suits who meet in a nail salon. One (Tina Jensen) is unfamiliar with the story; the other (Alex Gonzalez in drag) undertakes to explain it. And as she does, the story of Anastasia and Christian unfolds.

As Anastasia, aka Ana, the lovely Laurie Elizabeth Gardner has lungs of iron that can belt out a number. In addition to her looks and voice, Gardner has the twin gifts of great comic timing and being a dexterous physical comedienne. She seems to have modeled Ana on Goldie Hawn, right down to Hawn's giggle from Laugh-In. Whether or not that’s true, her interpretation of a dumb bunny is spirited fun. A sample exchange:

“I’m having a problem with my phone,” Ana tells her best friend Kate. “Spotty reception?” Kate asks. Ana: “No—I’ve never been good at math.”

Matthew Brian Bagley as Christian plays with a drier humor. His aloof hero is less frenetic, often a straight man to Gardner’s idiocy, and there’s a running joke that he’s not gay. When Ana pointedly asks him if he is, he says, “What I do in the confines of my bedroom with other guys is none of your business. And it doesn’t make me gay.” Still, there are several indicators, among them a super sight gag from set designer Josh Iacovelli as Christian sits at a café table. (Costumer Riona Faith O’Malley matches him with a sartorial gag of her own.)

The two supporting players—the chameleonic Rodriguez and the plus-size Tina Jensen, undertake a variety of characters with elan. Rodriguez is particularly good as a Zumba instructor and a lawyer named Willy Blowman, and if you can spot the double entendre, be assured there are many more on the same level. The latter, in addition to the nail salon client, plays Ana’s inner goddess, and her best friend, Kate, and has a singing voice as powerful as Gardner's.

Under Carter’s direction, the predominant tone is hysteria. The story hurtles forward, and the jokes seem to be thrown out to see what will stick, as if her template were the wall of the sex shop on stage that displays a wild variety of fetish paraphernalia. Nothing is taken too seriously, not even the show itself, as characters periodically break the fourth wall: When Blowman misunderstands an order from Christian, he is told, “Not you. You have a quick change.”

For a show extolling sex, there’s very little, in fact. Gardner gets down to black undergear and garters, and Bagley does a strip to briefs and plays a late scene bare-chested, but Fifty Shades is about fantasy, anticipation, and expectation. That said, some of the elements, particularly a contract that Christian wants Ana to sign to be his submissive, sit uneasily with musical comedy. An audience used to, say, Guys and Dolls, will find language and descriptions of kinky behavior far beyond mainstream limits of bawdiness, let alone good taste.

Still, it’s not likely Fifty Shades will be more than a musical of its moment, and already a fleeting one at that. But it provides an impressive calling card for four talented performers, and some lowbrow fun with a frisson of transgressive pleasure.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post