If I've learned anything from the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, it's to approach shows billed as "sexy romps" with a healthy amount of caution. It's been my experience that when they're good, they're great; when they're bad, they're really, really bad. Cringingly bad.
Musical comedy 50 Shades!: The Musical is indeed a fringe show writ large -- it did make its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, after all -- and is no exception to that rule. While it was never cringingly bad, its groaners often outnumbered its glimmers of brilliance.
The premise is strong enough: a ladies book club -- played in Winnipeg by Meghan Murphy, Sheila O'Connor and Glennis McCarthy -- decides to make the soft-porn novel that is E L James' bestselling 50 Shades of Grey its book of the month. Through a collage of sketch comedy and double-entendre-filled song-and-dance numbers with such subtle titles as There's a Hole Inside of Me and I Don't Make Love, I F*#@, the show gleefully skewers the book while gently poking fun at the Chardonnay-swilling housewives who love it.
Baby Wants Candy, the Chicago-based troupe behind the musical, successfully established mutually agreed-upon understanding with the audience that, while the book is stupid and terrible, the ladies who read it are not. The show laughs with the ladies (and the seven men in the audience), not at them.
And laugh they did. Opening night had the vibe of a mildly raunchy bachelorette party.
So it's a romp -- but is it sexy? Meh.
Let's be clear: there was sex -- lots of it -- but exactly none of it was sexy. The BDSM was slapstick and over-the-top, displaying the deft physical comedic talents of its estimable leads: Amber Petty, who played wide-eyed Anastasia Steele; and Chris Grace, who played kinky tycoon Christian Grey.
Petty, in particular, did an excellent job satirizing her buttoned-up, virginal character, playing up her awkward, golly-gee charm. A scene in which she attempts to dance at a club where everyone is bumping and grinding around her was one of the show's funniest moments. Her timing extended to her delivery, as well. "Hahaha, I don't know what jokes are!" she blurts out after her first meeting with Grey. She was great in the role, and had one of the best singing voices in the cast.
Grace, meanwhile, represented a flip in the cultural script. Instead of a ripped hunk, Christian Grey was a pudgy, Asian-American man. Grace played his pot-belly for laughs with the same uninhibited gusto as Will Ferrell. But it actually would have been more subversive if Grace had chosen to play it straight and not acknowledge his un-Greyesque body at all, rather than reinforcing the rather tired notion that a fat body can only be a comedic body, not a sexy body.
The women of the book club also turned out powerhouse performances within their somewhat limited roles. They weren't cartoony, they were relatable; many in the audience likely saw themselves in these women.
As far as musicals go, this wasn't exactly smutty Gilbert & Sullivan. Every number was one chorus too long and the tunes weren't that memorable, save for a lively number describing Grey's "Red Room of Pain" that shoehorned in every dirty word you can think of. The songs were also responsible for the bulk of the show's most embarrassingly bad one-liners, including one tasteless date-rape joke that attempted to rhyme "aloof" with "roofie."
In a show of almosts but not quites, 50 Shades!: The Musical shone in its most winking, self-aware moments -- like when Anastasia says, "This is real life, not a book. If it were, it'd be terrible!"
A better balance of brains and bawdy would have made for a more satisfying -- and sexy -- romp.