The producers of “50 Shades! The Musical” have prohibited journalists from publishing photographs of the actor who plays billionaire Christian Grey, so as not to spoil the big reveal when the sado-sex-god first appears on stage.
In the spirit of compliance, we won’t devote too much space to describing him here. Suffice it to say that during a recent performance in Virginia Beach, one of the exclamations from the audience was, “Ooh, back hair!”
“Two words: Own it,” says Jack Boice, the actor and Montgomery County native who has brought the role to Washington for a four-performance run at the Warner Theater. “If you believe you’re the sexiest man, they’ll believe it.”
“He gets the most applause every night,” says Eileen Patterson, 27, who plays Ana, Christian’s naive partner in bondage. Patterson is one of the show’s few actors who had read the “50 Shades!” source material prior to being cast. Her last gig was playing Rapunzel on Disney Cruise Line; she and the other princesses passed the books around during downtime on the ship.
“Where were we when I had the panties thrown at me?” Boice tries to remember. “Florida?”
Not just one pair but many — a middle-aged woman had brought her entire underwear drawer to the theater to toss in ecstasy at Boice, or more specifically, at the incarnate representation of a fictional character in a book series that has sold 90 million copies and introduced the general population to the term “ball gag.”
“They’re like cult followers,” says Tiffany Dissette, another cast member. “They come dressed up with masks, gray ties, riding crops.” They come to receive what the readers of terrible literature have long needed but never been awarded: a good, hard spanking.
Metaphorically speaking. The language in “50 Shades! The Musical” is fil-thy, but nobody gets (too) naked and nobody gets (too) handcuffed. It’s silly sadomasochism, which seems an appropriate theatrical progression for a book that started out as self-published forbidden fruit and transformed to what your aunt’s book club in Des Moines is reading this March.
Fittingly, your aunt’s book club — at least a reasonable facsimile of it — is the co-star of the musical. The first act opens with Pam, Bev and Carol choosing a selection for the next meeting. “Martha Stewart’s ‘Soup for One’? ” suggests the recently divorced Carol, but then Pam holds aloft a copy of E.L. James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which her fellow members deem respectable literature because, after all, it’s British. As the women dive into the book, its plot unfolds on stage: Ana, played chipmunk-chirpy by Patterson, meets and falls in love with enigmatic Christian, who instructs her, “Just let me dominate you in every way!”
“I feel so free!” Ana says.
“I also feel free. To completely control you,” he replies, lampooning the logic that has always exasperated the series’ haters: Freedom is submission! The trauma of childhood abuse should be dealt with through fetishes! It is reasonable that Christian Grey wants to have you surveilled, interfere with your job and monitor your eating habits, for that is what love is! YOLO!
The musical is the acted-out interpretation of every criticism that reviewers have lobbed at the book since its publication in 2011. But it’s also a loving send-up of book club culture. And eventually — due to the unorthodox casting choice of a guy who demurely describes himself as “more Nicely-Nicely Johnson than Sky Masterson” — it becomes a story about how, in love and nipple clamps, there really is no accounting for taste.
This is a place the book was never able to reach. Christian’s appeal was supposed to be his inaccessibility, Greek god features and granite abs: a man no woman could resist. Boice’s interpretation, a swaggering dude-boy with a high-pitched giggle and the herky-jerky dance moves of a nightmarish office Christmas party, removes a few layers of his danger. “We’re just like any other couple,” Christian and Ana sing, as he romantically festoons her with a collar and leash, and binds her hands with one of the story’s trademark gray ties (available for purchase in the lobby, along with fur handcuffs, a “50 Shades of Play” sexy card game and “Inner Goddess” T-shirts). You crazy kids.
“50 Shades!” was conceptualized after comedian Emily Dorezas, who was raised in Maryland, was talking with a friend about a news story he’d just read: Hardware stores were running out of a certain kind of rope, because Christian Grey fans were experimenting at home. Dorezas’s friend thought that a commentary on “50 Shades of Grey” fanaticism could provide for an interesting comedy sketch; instead, Dorezas and five other co-writers decided to expand it into a full-length touring musical, which premiered last year at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
“Even if you know nothing about this book, you know everything about it,” Dorezas says, explaining that the show is about the zeitgeist and backlash (Lash. Ouch!) as much as it’s about the book. It’s meant to be friendly to “50 Shades” virgins. At the Virginia Beach performance, the audience was 90 percent women, most of whom appeared to be on some version of a girls-night-out bender, many of whom seemed sloshed. This musical, Dorezas says, is a safe space for them.
“Do all of you now vow to continue reading these books in public, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the people around you?” asks a disembodied voice, while announcing intermission. Hoots and hollers ensue.
This particular touring company heads to Pennsylvania and Ohio next; it is booked at least through spring. And then? Will the musical still be able to exist once obsession over the books exhausts itself? Will the obsession over the books ever exhaust itself — or is “Fifty Shades of Grey” the best contribution the 2010s will be able to make to the literary canon?
Dorezas isn’t sure. “After all, the movie version comes out in 2015.”
At the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW, through Jan. 18. Tickets $32.50-$52.50. www.warnertheatredc.com.