While Hollywood gossip sites buzz about "Once Upon a Time's" Jamie Dornan replacing Charlie Hunnam of "Sons of Anarchy" as brooding billionaire sex master Christian Grey in the film version of "50 Shades of Grey," a kitsch-kink love fest plays out this weekend at the Broadway Playhouse. And while "50 Shades! The Musical" still feels like it needs to be whipped into shape, it does an adequate and sometimes charming job of dissecting the "mommy porn" appeal of E.L. James' best-seller, surreptitiously consumed on e-readers by those not bold enough to flaunt the physical book on public transit.
True, there are far more thoughtful cultural explorations of the psychology of dominance and submission. (Steven Shainberg's 2002 film "Secretary" with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal comes to mind — and Spader's character is even named "Grey.") But one doubts that the "ladies — and gentlemen dragged here by their ladies," as the pre-show announcement on Wednesday night greeted them, really want a psych lesson. What the creators of "50 Shades!," which began life with Chicago's own Baby Wants Candy musical sketch comedy troupe, have mostly managed to do — and it's harder than it looks — is to mock the Psych 101 window dressing of the James story without taking too many cheap shots at its fans. Who are, after all, buying tickets to this thing.
In part, this is accomplished by an (underutilized) framing device of three women at a book club. "We can have thoughtful literary discourse," one proclaims. "And I don't have to drink alone," says another. That little exchange captures the appeal of this show. One can laugh at James' insipid dialogue for her heroine, the feminist virgin college girl Anastasia Steele (Amber Petty), whose naive interjections turn the tale into "The Story of OMG, You Guys!" And one can also take prurient delight in gawking at the splendid sculpted male bodies on display.
Just not the one on the character of Grey himself, who is portrayed with panache by Chris Grace, who at one point fearlessly shows off his ample form in a wrestler's unitard. As Anastasia's corset-and-fishnets-clad "inner goddess" (Caroline Reade) performs steamy dance numbers with the shirtless-and-buff Grey stand-in Chris Sams, these idealized figments collide with the reality that most of us don't look nearly that good when nearly naked. ("All that inner-goddess stuff was really confusing," complains one of the book-club trio. "It sounded like some long lady-shaver commercial.")
The delicious interplay between mousy wide-eyed Petty and barrel-chested Grace suggests that one doesn't need a divine physique to discover new and interesting bedroom games. Of course, the show has plenty of cheap gags about S&M, all of which come together in the patter-song "Red Room." And as has been de rigueur for musicals-spoofing-musicals since "Urinetown! The Musical," there is a send-up of the barricades scene in "Les Miserables," with a gray flag flying high and proud. They've even worked in some jokes about Chicago's own stern master — Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
For all its strengths, though, this production still feels as if it hasn't negotiated the hard limits of a prime-time offering. (I know they want to sell drinks, but getting rid of the unnecessary intermission would help.) The skimpy production values that wouldn't detract on a late-night sketch stage feel like an insulting afterthought at these prices. More crucially, one wishes that the three ladies who leer in the book club could ultimately register as more than a generic Greek chorus of frustrated females. After all, they are stand-ins for the legions of women whose appetite for Naughty Lite made this whole enterprise possible.
When: Through Sunday
Where: The Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Running time: 90 minutes
Tickets: $29-$49 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun